Tag Archives: Evolution

Stomatal density and aperture in non-vascular plants are non-responsive to above-ambient CO2 concentrations

Stomatal density Stomata are one of the crucial adaptations in the evolution of the land flora and the development of the terrestrial landscape and atmosphere on Earth. These microscopic pores on the plant epidermis first appeared in the fossil record more than 400 million years ago, some 50–60 million years after the first land plants. Today they are found on the sporophyte generations of all land plant groups with exceptions only in the liverworts, the earliest moss lineages and a few derived hornwort clades. Exposure to high atmospheric CO2 concentration ([CO2]) has been shown to consistently result in a reduction of stomatal density (number of stomata per mm2) and index (ratio of stomata to epidermal cells) in the newly developed leaves of many vascular plant species. The general consensus view is that stomatal morphology is conserved throughout land plants and that their primary function is related to the regulation of gas and water exchange, [CO2] being a key activator of stomatal frequency. However, a crucial missing piece in the jigsaw of stomatal evolution and function is the responsiveness of bryophyte stomata to [CO2]. In the only previous studies on the effects of [CO2] on stomata in non-vascular plants recorded larger apertures in the mosses Physcomitrella and Funaria grown in the absence of CO2.

A recent paper in Annals of Botany challenges the widely accepted dogma that the responsiveness of stomata to [CO2] in terms of density and opening is conserved across the land plant phylogeny through careful experimentation and cytological observation and asks: (1) Are stomatal numbers on moss and hornwort sporophytes affected in the same way as those in angiosperms by elevated [CO2] representative of atmospheric concentrations in the Palaeozoic? (2) Do guard cell lengths and apertures in bryophytes change when subjected to representative Palaeozoic [CO2] throughout development?


Field, K. J., Duckett, J. G., Cameron, D. D., & Pressel, S. (2015) Stomatal density and aperture in non-vascular land plants are non-responsive to above-ambient atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Annals of Botany April 8, 2015 doi: 10.1093/aob/mcv021
Following the consensus view for unitary origin and conserved function of stomata across over 400 million years of land plant evolution, stomatal abundance has been widely used to reconstruct palaeo-atmospheric environments. However, the responsiveness of stomata in mosses and hornworts, the most basal stomate lineages of extant land plants, has received relatively little attention. This study aimed to redress this imbalance and provide the first direct evidence of bryophyte stomatal responsiveness to atmospheric CO2.
A selection of hornwort (Anthoceros punctatus, Phaeoceros laevis) and moss (Polytrichum juniperinum, Mnium hornum, Funaria hygrometrica) sporophytes with contrasting stomatal morphologies were grown under different atmospheric CO2 concentrations ([CO2]) representing both modern (440 p.p.m. CO2) and ancient (1500 p.p.m. CO2) atmospheres. Upon sporophyte maturation, stomata from each bryophyte species were imaged, measured and quantified. Densities and dimensions were unaffected by changes in [CO2], other than a slight increase in stomatal density in Funaria and abnormalities in Polytrichum stomata under elevated [CO2]. The changes to stomata in Funaria and Polytrichum are attributed to differential growth of the sporophytes rather than stomata-specific responses. The absence of responses to changes in [CO2] in bryophytes is in line with findings previously reported in other early lineages of vascular plants. These findings strengthen the hypothesis of an incremental acquisition of stomatal regulatory processes through land plant evolution and urge considerable caution in using stomatal densities as proxies for paleo-atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

Transcriptome and Genome of the Venus Flytrap

Venus Flytrap Dionaea muscipula Darwin was fascinated by the unusual adaptations of carnivorous plants during his often frustrating studies of the evolution of flowering plants, which he referred to as an ‘abominable mystery’. Darwin’s treatise on insectivorous plants noted that the Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) was ‘one of the most wonderful of the world’. Studies of carnivorous plants have continued since Darwin’s time.

An understanding of the molecular adaptations to plant carnivory has also been sought via genome size estimates. Genome sizes vary more than 2,300-fold among angiosperms, from that of Paris japonica (~149 Gbp) to that of carnivorous Genlisea margaretae (~63 Mbp). The biological significance of this massive variation is puzzling.

A new paper in PLOS ONE examines the transcriptome and genome of the Venus flytrap, Dionaea muscipula. The transcriptome provides some insight into the molecular processes occurring in a Gb-sized carnivorous plant genome. Abundant representation of processes related to the expression of genes associated with catalytic, antioxidant and electron carrier activities was observed. Future uniform meta-analyses of short-read archives, including cDNA sequences from carnivorous Utricularia and Sarracenia species will aid studies of carnivorous plants and their ecology. This underlines the importance of further expansion of sequence repositories, especially for non-model organisms, for improved understanding of molecular physiology and evolution related to Darwin’s ‘abominable mystery’.


Jensen MK, Vogt JK, Bressendorff S, Seguin-Orlando A, Petersen M, et al. (2015) Transcriptome and Genome Size Analysis of the Venus Flytrap. PLoS ONE 10(4): e0123887. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0123887
The insectivorous Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) is renowned from Darwin’s studies of plant carnivory and the origins of species. To provide tools to analyze the evolution and functional genomics of D. muscipula, we sequenced a normalized cDNA library synthesized from mRNA isolated from D. muscipula flowers and traps. Using the Oases transcriptome assembler 79,165,657 quality trimmed reads were assembled into 80,806 cDNA contigs, with an average length of 679 bp and an N50 length of 1,051 bp. A total of 17,047 unique proteins were identified, and assigned to Gene Ontology (GO) and classified into functional categories. A total of 15,547 full-length cDNA sequences were identified, from which open reading frames were detected in 10,941. Comparative GO analyses revealed that D. muscipula is highly represented in molecular functions related to catalytic, antioxidant, and electron carrier activities. Also, using a single copy sequence PCR-based method, we estimated that the genome size of D. muscipula is approx. 3 Gb. Our genome size estimate and transcriptome analyses will contribute to future research on this fascinating, monotypic species and its heterotrophic adaptations.

Molecular phylogenetics of the orchid Himantoglossum

Molecular phylogenetics of the orchid <i>Himantoglossum</i>

Molecular phylogenetics of the orchid Himantoglossum

Lizard orchids (Himantoglossum) include several of Eurasia’s most spectacular and conservation-relevant species. Sramkó et al. provide the first comprehensive molecular phylogeny for these charismatic orchids by sampling all known taxa across the whole distribution area of the genus. By using sequences of two nuclear and four plastid DNA-regions, they reconstruct phylogenetic trees that collectively determined the order of branching of the early divergent taxa as H. comperianum > H. robertianum group > H. formosum > H. hircinum group. Molecular clock and ancestral area analyses indicate an origin of the group at approximately 9 million years ago in the Caucasus Mountains.

Phylogeny and biogeography of wild roses

Phylogeny and biogeography of wild roses The genus Rosa (with 150–200 species) is widely distributed throughout temperate and sub-tropical habitats from the northern hemisphere to tropical Asia, with only one tropical African species. In order to better understand the evolution of roses, this study examines infrageneric relationships with respect to conventional taxonomy, considers the extent of allopolyploidization and infers macroevolutionary processes that have led to the current distribution of the genus.

The ancestral area reconstruction suggests that despite an early presence on the American continent, most extant American species are the results of a later re-colonization from Asia, probably through the Bering Land Bridge. The results suggest more recent exchanges between Asia and western North America than with eastern North America. The current distribution of roses from the Synstylae lineage in Europe is probably the result of a migration from Asia approx. 30 million years ago, after the closure of the Turgai strait. Directions for a new sectional classification of the genus Rosa are proposed, and the analyses provide an evolutionary framework for future studies on this notoriously difficult genus.

Fougère-Danezan, M., Joly, S., Bruneau, A., Gao, X. F., & Zhang, L. B. (2014) Phylogeny and biogeography of wild roses with specific attention to polyploids. Annals of Botany, December 29, 2014, doi: 10.1093/aob/mcu245

Inflorescences take centre stage

Inflorescences issue cover Annals of Botany has a new special issue in Free Access: Inflorescences. It’s a useful reminder to me of another area of Botany I need to read more about.

For a start, I think I’ve said elsewhere that inflorescences are the structures where there are multiple flowers on a plant and not just a single flower. In a clumsy way this might be true but it also misses the point of an inflorescence. It’s not simply that there are multiple flowers, but also that those flowers work with each other as unit. They’re not just a collection of individuals.

If you approach inflorescences from this point of view, their structure becomes a bit of a puzzle. Why the diversity? But also, can you classify them sensibly and, if you can, what is the basis of that? Do different structures correspond with different functions?

Lawrence Harder and Przemyslaw Prusinkiewicz describe the interplay between inflorescence development and function as the crucible of architectural diversity. It highlights the importance of linking structures and function. In terms of tracing plant relationships, structure is useful but it’s also worth looking at what the structure does. A similar structure could have a very different result if the phenology, the timing of the flowering, changes.

Time is key factor that is highlighted by Harder and Prusinkiewicz. Looking at a display, it’s easy to think of it as an organisation in space, but they also make a point that inflorescences are dynamic. They change with time, and how they change with time has consequences for their function.

As far as plant reproduction goes, it’s easy to focus on the success of flowers, but Harder and Prusinkiewicz argue that what you have is part of a modular system, and that to understand it you have to look at the system as a whole, instead of modules in isolation. Most angiosperms use inflorescences so it’s clearly a powerful tool for a plant. Looking at them as a unit and not just parts can put plant reproduction into a new context.

Harder L.D. & Prusinkiewicz P. (2012). The interplay between inflorescence development and function as the crucible of architectural diversity, Annals of Botany, 112 (8) 1477-1493. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/aob/mcs252

Polyploidy and long-distance dispersal

Polyploidy and long-distance dispersal

Polyploidy and long-distance dispersal

Most of the numerous and remarkable range disjunctions across the southern oceans are probably the result of occasional long-distance dispersal, rather than of vicariance. Linder and Barker study the grass subfamily Danthonioideae, which probably reached its current global distribution by a number of long-distance dispersal events during the Neogene, and show that such dispersal is much more likely in polyploid than in diploid species. It is possible that polyploidy facilitates post-dispersal establishment, and it is postulated that the frequent occurrence of polyploidy in the grasses may thus have facilitated their long-distance dispersal, and hence contributed to the remarkable success of the family.

Plant molecular cytogenetics in the genomic and postgenomic era

Plant Molecular Cytogenetics in the Genomic and Postgenomic Era

Plant Molecular Cytogenetics in the Genomic and Postgenomic Era

The way that we can address questions in genome evolution and expression has changed enormously in the last five years. We can get huge amounts of DNA sequence for any species for a budget within that of most labs. As importantly perhaps, the web and PC-based analytical tools now enable researcher to do something with all those giga-bases of sequence within your own lab. Linking DNA sequence to the physical chromosomes has been a continuing challenge though, despite the widespread use of in situ hybridization. The huge number of whole genome and whole-chromosome evolution processes are not amenable to whole genome sequencing, but chromosome analysis can use the information to understand real biological problems. So this week, I’m thinking about Plant Molecular Cytogenetics in the Genomic and Postgenomic Era at a meeting in Poland. Although my tweets from the conference gained quite some following (thank you for letting me know, Twitter analytics) under the @ChrConf user and #PMC tag, I didn’t have a partner on social media so impressions are a little one-sided. However, I hope the collation below will give some flavour of the range of topics addressed during the meeting – but as usual the posters and social events provided the source of new inspiration. Skype will never replace personal meetings with old friends nor give the opportunity for making new links!

This conference in Katowice, Poland, is bringing together about 150 people, mostly from Europe with a substantial addition from that hive of cytogenetic activity, Brazil. It is organized by Robert Hasterok, a leader in use of the grass Brachypodium as a model species (http://aob.oxfordjournals.org/content/104/5/873.short) and understanding its evolution (http://aob.oxfordjournals.org/content/109/2/385.short). The meeting honours Jola Maluszynska, one of the earliest people to use molecular cytogenetics and who I have been privileged to work with – not least with that other model species, Arabidopsis (some published in Annals of Botany long ago http://aob.oxfordjournals.org/content/71/6/479.short).

The programme includes good time to look at the impressive array of posters showing the vibrancy of the post-genomic research. These are described in the abstract book, but here I will overview a selection of highlights from the talks. Although speaking near the end of the programme, it is only fair to start with Robert Hasterok – it is always a challenge both to talk and organize a meeting in your home town. In a wide-ranging talk about Brachypodium, he presented a diverse range of cytomolecular work going on in his lab, drawing out broader points from the posters we had studied on the first day. He defined a model species as an organism that possesses certain features that make it more amenable to scientific investigation compared with other less tractable members of the group it represents. It is also helpful when it possesses well-developed research resources and infrastructure (including how to grow the plant) that enable efficient work. The Brachypodium genome project was established in 2006 and the Brachypodium distacyhon genomic sequence completed in 2010. At that time, even the definition of key species in the genus was not clear, and it was only in 2012 that use of in situ hybridization clearly showed that there were three species

http://aob.oxfordjournals.org/content/109/2/385.short , now named Brachypodium distachyon (2n=10), B. stacei (2n=20), and the hybrid B. hybridum (2n=30). Robert then addressed the question of “What is known about grass genome evolution at the level of the chromosome?” “How is the development of compound chromosomes from a grass ancestral karyotype?” Cytomolecular work is showing chromosome remodelling and compound chromosomes in Brachy and its nearer and more distant ancestors in work published earlier this year ( http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0093503 _). The next section of his talk looked at nuclear organization. At interphase, there are clear chromosome territories, but for individual pairs of homologous chromosomes, all four possibilities of organization are seen with association of top arms of chromosomes, association of bottom arms, association of two homologous, or no association at all – the four being in very roughly equal proportions (perhaps the first a bit more frequent). A second group of experiments was looking at arrangements of centromeric and telomeric domains at interphase in various Brachypodium species: remarkably, there was a Rabl configuration with centromeres at one pole and telomeres at the opposite end of diploid interphase nuclei, while no such pattern was seen in the tetraploid 4x. This led to discussion of epigenetic effects, where nucleolar dominance is seen B. hybridum: the B. distachyon-origin rDNA genes are dominant over those of B. stacei. As with all good talks we were given insight into the brick walls of research: Brachypodium is nearly an anti-model for studying meiosis, while the obvious question about behaviour of resynthesized B. hybridum compared to the million-year old species is stymied by the lack of viability of the new hybrid.

So back then to the start of the programme with Dieter Schweizer giving insight into structural maintenance of chromosomes and epigenetics effects. The DMS3 structural protein interacts with DME Demeter, a DNA glycosylase domain protein and transcriptional activator, which has a function in directly excising 5 methyl cytosine from DNA and initiating replacement by unmethylated cytosine. In a lecture of two parts, Dieter’s second theme was cytogenetics and immunocytochemistry of triploid endosperm, where, there is parental genome separation and somatic pairing.

I’ll include a discussion of aspects of my talk (particularly one slide on crop production and the contribution of genetics) in a later post  – meanwhile my talk is posted here although with little supporting text. Hans De Jong followed with discussing plant cytogenetics in the era of modern genomics where I wasn’t sure if he was happy or sad that the Dutch contribution to the tomato genome sequence project, chromosome 6, proved to be one of the most rearranged or variable and hence tricky to analyse. Amazing 6-colour in situ hybridization sorted out many complex problems in ordering contigs of continuous blocks of sequence, and then linked orders between tomato and potato. Hans concluded that assembly algorithms placed about 33% of all assembled contigs were in the wrong position or wrong order in tomato. I was also interested to hear his final discussion about wide comparisons at the sequence level now being made between different species and even genera in Solanaceae, although I look forward to seeing how these cope with the proportion of highly variable repeats between the species.

After our first break, Ingo Schubert and collaborator Giang TH Vu talked about break repair – double-strand breaks (DSBs) at meiosis of in somatic cells, linking the molecular with the microscopic level in the monocot crop barley. DSB are ubiquitous, frequent and hazardous to the genome, and if unrepaired are lethal for dividing cells. Ingo could distinguish by molecular constructs and microscopy between the different DSB repair pathways involving homologous recombination or non-homologous end-joining. The latter NHEJ was seen to be the dominant DSBs repair pathway in barley with the consequent small deletions and/or insertions with or without microhomology. In asking my question about the role of enzymes and differences between species, I felt like the notorious “third referee” of important manuscripts wanting even more work for what is the first demonstration of the relationships of the different DSB repair mechanisms!

Andreas Houben, one of a large delegation from IPK in Gatersleben, then discussed centromeres with his interests in haploid technology and doubled haploids. CENH3 is an essential centromere component in almost all eukaryotes as modified histone H3. Andreas showed another hybrid species, Arabidopsis suecica (were natural and this time artificial hybrids can be made), making specific antibodies specific to the CENH3 in the two ancestors. In stable hybrids, both CENH3 sequences immune-hybridized to both centromeres – not like the species-specific centromeric sequences (http://www.le.ac.uk/bl/phh4/openpubs/openpubs/Kamm_Arenosa.pdf ) – but with high-resolution microscopy, his lab could see CENH3 variants are differentially loaded into distinct centromeric subdomains. Used some barley tilling mutation sets of lines, a mutated betaCENH3 was found which was not loaded onto the centromeres which had a normal phenotype except it was rather sterile: 56% univalents and 24% lagging at meiosis. Moving back to Arabidopsis, a mutant CENH3 that generates a haploid induce line (with a single amino acid change) was demonstrated, with the important consequence that hybrids using this could loose the maternal genome, enabling plant breeders to replace the cytoplasm in one generation.

Paul Fransz moved forward our understanding of a major paracentric inversion from 10000 yrs ago seen in Arabidopsis. His sequencing and cytogenetic work allowed detection of the inversion borders and hence the molecular mechanism of the inversion, work with (epi)genetic and phylogenetic consequences. Remarkable genome wide association analyses (GWAS) showed increased fitness under abiotic drought stress – the trait of fruit length and fecundity – was associated with the genes in the low recombination zone around the inversion.

Hanna Weiss-Schneeweiss showed the way modern cytogenetic approaches reveal “More than meets the eye: contrasting evolutionary trajectories in polyploids of the Prospero complex” and she was able to sort out the complex relationships in these species.

Our second day started with display of the wonderful timelapse films of the Polish botanists Bajer & Mole-Bajer, made in 1956, showing mitosis in Haemanthus endosperm. I knew these from my undergraduate days, and in the 1990s was given a 16mm film version by Professor Rachel Leech from York. I had them converted to VHS video tape, but happily we can now all access them freely on the web – whether downloadable from http://www.cellimagelibrary.org/images/11952 or several posts on YouTube such as https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s1ylUTbXyWU .

An important practical question for breeding and selection, building from several talks on the first day, relate to Glyn Jenkins’ key question: Can we change sites of recombination to release novel recombination, new genetic variation and useful phenotypes? Then we are well on the way to  ‘optimising’ the germplasm of barley by manipulating recombination. The range of meiotic antibodies –  ASY1, ZYP1 and HvMLH3  – allowed study of recombination processes and give a recombination nodule map. Reconstructions of individual bivalents with meiosis antibodies shows distal bias of chiasmata (http://jxb.oxfordjournals.org/content/64/8/2139.short). Remarkably, a substantial but not extreme (15 C to 25 C) increase in temperature of growth for barley altered the genetic length, becoming much longer (more recombination) at high temperatures in male meiosis, although not on the female side. The map expansion was in pericentromeric regions, and significantly shifted HvMLH3 foci locations but not numbers.

AoB Editor Martin Lysak with Terezie Mandakova discussed very extensive work on Brassicaceae chromosome evolution under the title ‘More than the cabbage: chromosome and genome evolution in crucifers’ (eg http://www.plantcell.org/content/25/5/1541.short). The simplicity of the models of evolution of crucifer genomes that Martin showed belie the huge amount of underpinning data on comparative cytogenetics, sequenced genomes, genetic maps and phylogenetics, as well as the number of ‘envelopes’ that must have been used to sketch out models (although I’m not sure what replaces envelopes in the day of e-mails). Basically, the ancestral crucifer karyotype (ACK) in ‘diploids’ (themselves often of polyploid or hybrid origin) and polyploids can be divided into 24 ancestral genomic blocks. One of the most simple situations, in Capsella rubella (Slotte et al. 2013) the ACK  remained largely conserved, while there can be diversification without large scale rearrangements in Cardamine. Arabis alpina is more complex, with seven of 8 ancestral chromosome reshuffled, probably involving  five reciprocal translocations, four pericentric inversions, three centromere repositionings , one centromere loss and one new centromere. Wow! Martin treated us to consideration of all the major lineages in the group, from the extreme of chromosome number reduction to n=5 in Arabidopsis thaliana, through to the most remarkable 72 genome duplication events in oilseed rape/Brassica napus since origin of angiosperms! Clearly, a whole genome triplication spurred genome and taxonomic diversity in Brassica and the tribe Brassiceae and I will need to follow his next publications, with many colleagues but particularly talk co-author Terezie Mandakova, to understand the consequences of descending dysploidy from the ACK ancestral crucifer karyotype and PCK (Proto-Calepineae karyotype), with range of mechanisms involving translocations, loss of minichromosomes, end to end fusions, inversions, and centromere shifts.

The last talks before posting these notes came from Kesara Anamthawat-Jonsson – my first PhD student – addressing Where did birch in Iceland come from? Betula is another genus with lots of hybrids, even though the history of birch in Iceland only extends for the 10000 years of the holocene since Iceland came out from under the ice. Kesara builds on her Annals of Botany paper http://aob.oxfordjournals.org/content/99/6/1183.short showing that 10% of Icelandic birches are 2n=3x=42 hybrids, but only half of these can be seen from their morphology. Kesara has now looked at chloroplast DNA haplotypes across Iceland as well as evidence for extensive introgression between the species via 3x hybrids involving whole genomes of both Betula nana and B. pubescens.

There are still a few more talks, and then I am off for some lab visits – I’m sorry I can’t cover everything but I hope this flavour of the exciting meeting will be useful to a few. It is clear that we are really in a post-genomic era, and cytogenetic approaches are making major advances in this new landscape.

Plant evolution: The inevitability of C4 photosynthesis

Photosynthesis Although atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are currently rising, the last 30 million years witnessed great declines in CO2, which has limited the efficiency of photosynthesis. Rubisco, the critical photosynthetic enzyme that catalyses the fixation of CO2 into carbohydrate, also reacts with oxygen when CO2 levels are low and temperatures are high. When this occurs, plants activate a process known as photorespiration, an energetically expensive set of reactions that release one molecule of CO2.

C4 photosynthesis is a clever solution to the problem of low atmospheric CO2. It is an internal plant carbon-concentrating mechanism that largely eliminates photorespiration: a ‘fuel-injection’ system for the photosynthetic engine. C4 plants differ from plants with the more typical ‘C3′ photosynthesis because they restrict Rubisco activity to an inner compartment, typically the bundle sheath, with atmospheric CO2 being fixed into a 4-carbon acid in the outer mesophyll. This molecule then travels to the bundle sheath, where it is broken down again, bathing Rubisco in CO2 and limiting the costly process of photorespiration.

The evolution of the C4 pathway requires many changes. These include the recruitment of multiple enzymes into new biochemical functions, massive shifts in the spatial distribution of proteins and organelles, and a set of anatomical modifications to cell size and structure. It is complex, and it is also highly effective: C4 plants include many of our most important and productive crops (maize, sorghum, sugarcane, millet) and are responsible for around 25% of global terrestrial photosynthesis. A new paper in eLife examines how this process may have evolved, first to correct an intercellular nitrogen imbalance, and only later evolved a central role in carbon fixation.

Cause for optimism (maybe not…)

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

As an ‘old-fashioned’ botanist my heart was gladdened to see that Number 1 in the ‘Top 10 most viewed Plant Science research articles in 2013’ from Frontiers in Plant Science was one that dealt with fundamental botany of the taxonomic kind. The paper in question was entitled ‘Angiosperm-like pollen and Afropollis from the Middle Triassic (Anisian) of the Germanic Basin (Northern Switzerland)’ and was written by Peter Hochuli and Susanne Feist-Burkhardt. Whilst that recognition may engender a feel-good view that plant taxonomy is doing rather well, Quentin Wheeler’s timely New Phytologist Commentary, ‘Are reports of the death of taxonomy an exaggeration?’, offers a more cautious interpretation. Commenting upon an article by Daniel Bebber et al., he concludes that plant taxonomy (though one suspects taxonomy of all biota fares as badly) is still in desperate need of greater attention – in terms of people to undertake the work and appropriate funding – as befits its importance to a true appreciation of the planet’s biodiversity and the inter-relationships between living things. Sadly, this state of affairs is unlikely to be helped by news that the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew (London, UK) – one of the world’s premier centres of plant taxonomic endeavour – is in the midst of a funding crisis. Indeed, the situation is apparently so bad that ‘about 125 jobs could be cut as… Kew… faces a £5m shortfall in revenue in the coming financial year’. This must be particularly concerning since it comes shortly after news that visitor numbers to Kew increased by 29% last year compared to 2012. And this bad news on the plant taxonomy front is echoed in the USA where ‘too few scientists are being trained in agriculture areas of science’. So, there’s an insufficiency of people to grow the new crops that aren’t being identified because of the dearth of plant taxonomists. Where will it all end..?

[If you’re not put off by the precarious state of life as a taxonomist and want a little bit more of a career insight, then you could do much worse that read Elisabeth Pain’s ‘Science Careers’ article.  And for a welcome boost to publicising the plight of the endangered species known as Taxonomus non-vulgaris var. biologicus, see Tim Entwisle’s news article in The Guardian – Ed.]

One of a kind…

Image: Scott Zona/Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Scott Zona/Wikimedia Commons.

These articles have been going long enough(!) to be able now to report a successful outcome to a research project whose initiation was announced in a former news item entitled ‘Old meets new’. The project is the elucidation of the genome of Amborella trichopoda. “Amborella is a monotypic genus of rare understory [sic! What ever happened to understorEy??? – Ed.] shrubs or small trees endemic to… New Caledonia”.

Not only is this plant rare and monotypic – truly ‘one of a kind’! – but it is also probably the living – extant – flowering plant [angiosperm] that is closest evolutionarily to the earliest true first member of the angiosperm plant group, and may therefore be “the last survivor of a lineage that branched off during the dynasty’s earliest days, before the rest of the 350,000 or so angiosperm species diversified”. Given Amborella’s exalted status (which “represents the equivalent of the duck-billed platypus in mammals”), it is hoped that understanding its genetics will shed light on the evolution of the angiosperms as a whole. Indeed, the University of Bonn’s Dietmar Quandt is reported as describing Amborella as a more worthy model organism than Arabidopsis(!!!).

Since the angiosperms are probably the most ‘successful’ of all the groups in the Plant Kingdom (‘the land plants’, the Plantae), hopes are understandably high that unravelling the genome of Amborella – reported by the aptly named Amborella Genome Project – will lead to the identification of “the molecular basis of biological innovations that contributed to their geologically near-instantaneous rise to ecological dominance”. And accompanying the main nuclear genome article, Danny Rice et al. report on Amborella’s mitochondrial genome (mitochondria have some of their own DNA additional to that located in the nucleus) and find that numerous genes were acquired by horizontal gene transfer from other plants, including almost four entire mitochondrial genomes from mosses and algae. So, as ancient as it is, Amborella was still prepared to ‘learn’ from the experiences of even older land plants – mosses – and plant-like algae (which are in a different kingdom entirely to the land plants, the Protista). Adopt and adapt: a life lesson for all living things, I suggest.

[For more on this fascinating story, visit the home of the Amborella genome database. And if you still need some ‘proper’ botany (after all this genomery), you need look no further than Paula Rudall and Emma Knowles’ paper examining ultrastructure of stomatal development in early-divergent angiosperms (including Amborella…).  Notwithstanding all of this understandable present-day excitement, I can’t help but think that the importance of Amborella was foretold many decades ago, as “popular-in-the-mid-1970s” British-based pop band Fox seemingly declared: “things can get much better, under your Amborella…”. Indeed! So, arabidopsis had better watch out! – Ed.]