Scientists unravel the mysterious origins of flowers

Amborella female flower.
Amborella female flower.
Photograph by Sangtae Kim via the Amborella Genome Project.
Amborella female flower.
Amborella flower underside.
Photograph by Joel McNeal via the Amborella Genome Project
Amborella female flower.
This image taken through a dissecting microscope and magnified eight times shows the flower from Amborella trichopoda, a large shrub found only on the South Pacific island of New Caledonia, and the closest living relative of the earliest angiosperms, or flowering plants.
Sangtae Kim via the Amborella Project

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Flowers have long baffled scientists.

While most plants evolve slowly, fossil records show that flowers sprung up suddenly, spread fast and changed relatively quickly.

This rapid proliferation, around 100 million years ago, was so unusual that Charles Darwin called flowers an "abominable mystery".

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"He couldn’t really understand this," Claude dePamphilis, a biology professor at Penn State University explained of Darwin.

"Darwin’s view of evolution was that it would primarily take place gradually and over a long period of time,” he said.

Flowers, he noted, did not seem to follow this trend.

To help unravel this "abominable mystery," dePamphilis and a global team of researchers started the Amborella Genome Project. The goal is to look for clues about the origins of all flowers by studying the genes of Amborella trichopodathe oldest known living species of flower.

"Amborella is a very special flowering plant," dePamhilis noted.

When they decoded the genome, the researchers found that an early ancestor of the flower seems to have experienced a genetic fluke that caused it to double its entire bundle of genes.

This condition, known as polylpoidy, is rare in animals but more common in plants.

This gave the plant twice the genetic material allowing it to mutate and evolve faster than normal.

“Many, many times faster if you take a look at the total number of different genes that are now available because each one can mutate,” dePamphlis explained.

So the theory is that this genetic glitch helped flowers flourish and spread across the globe relatively quickly.

The study was published in the journal Science.

dePamhilis and his fellow flower researchers plant to continue studying the Amborella for more insight into the history of these unique plants.