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A New Tree of Flowering Plants? For Spring? Groundbreaking.

May 29, 2024
Technology & Research

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Almost every plant we eat has a flower and flowering plants populate every corner of the planet. After a heroic DNA sequencing effort, a collaboration involving hundreds of scientists have created a new family tree for flowering plants, comparing gene sequences from more than 9,500 species.

The data suggests that more than 80 percent of major modern flowering plant lineages originated in a sudden burst of invention that began around 150 million years ago, in the late Jurassic Period. Then, five years ago, another scientific collaboration published detailed information about more than 1,100 plant species’ nuclear genomes.

The new data reshuffled the relationships of a number of plant groups, and some individual species were reclassified. One finding that has surprised plant experts concerns a group of flowers that are so common, it’s easy to take them for granted. The researchers also tried to link their evolutionary tree to known geological eras.

But many flowering plants have been spotted in fossils, which can be dated. Using 200 fossils of flowers to add dates into the genealogy, the team pinpointed a great explosion in flowering plant diversity in the Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous periods, when dinosaurs lived, starting around 150 million years ago.

Another surge in species numbers came about 40 million years ago, the new tree suggests, amid plummeting global temperatures. They also hope to add still more species to this evolutionary genealogy in the future, as more data means a higher-resolution look at what happened in the past. Little by little, petal by petal, the history of flowering plants is coming into focus.

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