An international multi-disciplinary research team from Brown University, the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies (HITS), and Yale University has reconstructed the largest evolutionary tree (phylogeny) for plants and learned that major groups of plants tinker with their design and performance before rapidly spinning off new species. The finding upends long-held thinking that plants' speciation rates are tied to the first development of a new physical trait or mechanism.
Evolution has been successful for billions of years and produced a vast amount of successful new species, but we still do not understand the underlying mechanisms. Researchers from the U.S. and Germany have recently unraveled new parts of this process. They found that plants initially tinker with their configuration and performance prior to coming up with new, improved versions of themselves.The issue at hand is when a grouping of plants with the same ancestor, called a clade, begins to spin off new species. Biologists laboring over assembling the tree of life have long assumed that rapid speciation occurred when a clade first developed a new physical trait or mechanism and had begun its own genetic branch. But the team, led by Brown post-doctoral researcher Stephen Smith, who is also affiliated to the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies (HITS), discovered that major lineages of flowering plants did not begin to rapidly spawn new species until they had reached a point of development at which speciation success and rate would be maximized. The results are published in the American Journal of Botany.Evolution is not what we previously thought,” said Smith, who works in the laboratories of Brown biologist Casey Dunn and of HITS computer scientist Alexis Stamatakis. “It’s not as if you get a flower, and speciation (rapidly) occurs. There is a lag. Something else is happening. There is a phase of product development, so to speak.”Research in this area is only possible with computational methods. “This is a nice example of how computer science and cyberinfrastructure initiatives can help to extend the limits of biological explorations” says Alexandros Stamatakis, group leader of the scientific computing group at HITS (Heidelberg).
Further information:Dr. Peter SaueressigPublic RelationsHITS Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical StudiesPhone: 0 62 21/ 533 245Fax: 0 62 21/ 533 198E-Mail: peter.saueressig(at)h-its.orgThe phylogenetic tree can be find online with the link "Phyloviewer" (top right). Please select "BigPlantTree"from the menue.
The article in the American Journal of Botany:S. A. Smith, J. M. Beaulieu, A. Stamatakis, M. J. Donoghue. Understanding Angiosperm Diversification Using Small and Large Phylogenetic Trees. American Journal of Botany, 2011; 98 (3): 404 DOI: 10.3732/ajb.1000481