Home: Scrying: Floral Speciation

Floral Speciation

May 18, 2006

It just isn’t fair that Female flowers of Amborella trichopoda  humans get all the spotlight. In the last post, I described a new theory regarding hominid evolution. While those folks were looking at hominid DNA, a biologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder was looking at the evolution of flowers.

In particular, William “Ned” Friedman examined the reproductive structure of one of the most primitive living angiosperms, the amborella. He showed how the flower differed slightly from most, representing an experimental form. When angiosperms (flowering plants) were first evolving from gymnosperms (trees, like conifers,) there were a variety of forms being tested, before settling on the forms we are familiar with—such as wheat, roses, and orchids. The differences in the amborella’s reproductive structure represent one of those variations:

The difference lies in the microscopic reproductive apparatus surrounding the female amborella plant’s eggs. The amborella’s apparatus has eight nuclei and nine cells; that of most flowering plants has seven nuclei and eight cells.

“This may seem a trifling matter, but it is akin to finding a fossil amphibian with an extra leg,” Henry Gee, Nature’s senior editor for biological sciences, wrote in an accompanying story. (Via Boulder’s Daily Camera)

This may be one of many “missing links” in the evolution of flowers. Friedman plans to look for other missing links:
“Amborella is one of a half-dozen ancient plants we want to take a fresh look at,” he said.

It’s refreshing to see evolutionary studies focus on flowers… after all, we tend to take them for granted. Of course, as Diane Carman, Denver Post Columnist, suggested, Friedman’s botanical studies went practically unnoticed, while the scandal over professor Ward Churchill took over the media spotlight:
So while an eager public obsesses on the ravings of a Native American studies professor who never should have received tenure at CU, Friedman will return to his lab to continue the esoteric basic science research that is internationally acclaimed, has brought well over $1 million in grants to the state from the National Science Foundation and goes largely unnoticed by Coloradans.

Hey, I noticed! I think it’s pretty cool. (Nevermind the fact that I plan to apply to CU Boulder soon, and major in the same ecology and evolutionary studies program.) Of course, what the media thinks is “cool” is not necessarily the same as the rest of us. Friedman, fortunately, didn’t seem to mind:
“Botany isn’t quite the same thing as the whiff of scandal,” said Friedman, who took heart in the fact that his research on the evolution of flowering plants was published in the current issue of Nature magazine and that kudos were pouring in from botanists around the world.

OK, admittedly, “Embryological evidence for developmental lability during early angiosperm evolution” is not exactly made-for-talk-radio material. But for scientists studying evolution, Friedman’s discovery is a bona fide eureka moment.

“It’s really exciting,” he said.

Amborella image via the Botanical Society of America’s online image collection.

PS: I haven’t forgotten about the desert myth I promised to post yesterday. It’s still on the way; I just couldn’t pass on all the great evolutionary headlines in the papers today.