Academic Minute
5:00 am
Wed April 9, 2014

Dr. Victor Albert, University at Buffalo - Ancient Lineage of Flower DNA

Studying the DNA of the ancient Amborella flower is opening up new insights into the evolution of certain plants and animals.

The University at Buffalo's Dr. Victor Albert is looking deeply into the ancient origins of this Amborella and working to sequence its genome in order to better understand how life has developed on Earth.

Dr. Victor Albert is an Empire Innovation Professor at UBuffalo's Department of Biological Sciences. His research focuses on genomic, developmental, and genetic approaches to understanding problems in plant evolutionary biology and he's written extensively on these related fields.

About Dr. Albert

Amborella Genome Database

Dr. Victor Albert - Ancient Lineage of Flower DNA

The famous naturalist Charles Darwin called the proliferation of flowers on Earth an ‘abominable mystery.’

If you look at the fossil record, there was little evidence of flowering plants until the mid-Cretaceous period about 100 million years ago. Then, for unknown reasons, the number of species suddenly exploded.

Major food crops like rice, coffee and avocados all owe their existence to this ancient upheaval.

To find out what may have caused it, my colleagues and I started studying a plant called Amborella, which grows on the Pacific island of New Caledonia. It’s a small tree with cream-colored blossoms that look like little clusters of fireworks.

Photo by Scott Zona
Photo by Scott Zona

Amborella is special because it comes from an ancient lineage: Its evolutionary path diverged from that of other flowers very early on.

When we sequenced Amborella’s genome, we found evidence that the common ancestor of all flowering plants, including Amborella, underwent what scientists call a polyploidy event. This is where every bit of an organism’s DNA gets duplicated, and it happened about 200 million years ago.

If you have two copies of the same gene, one can develop new functions without disrupting existing activities. Of course, not all duplicated genes are kept over time, but those with new and adaptive functions are thought to contribute to radiations of biodiversity — like the abrupt expansion in flower variety that stumped Darwin.

DNA-doubling may sound strange, but it can happen in animals, too.

The ancestors of all vertebrates, including humans, underwent two duplications. Ray-finned fish experienced yet another, which may explain why there are so many types of ray-finned fish today.

As we continue to study Amborella and compare it to other plants, we expect to learn more about the evolution of flowers — and how genome-doubling may have encouraged their progress and growth.

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