Magazine article Science News

Genes Hint That Ferns Proliferated in Shade of Flowering Plants

Magazine article Science News

Genes Hint That Ferns Proliferated in Shade of Flowering Plants

Article excerpt

Analyses of genetic material from a multitude of fern species suggest that much of that plant group branched out millions of years after flowering plants appeared, a notion that contradicts many scientists' views of plant evolution.

Botanists estimate that ferns include more than 10,000 living species. Most modern ferns belong to a set of species called the leptosporangiates, which emerged at least 250 million years ago, says Kathleen M. Pryer of Duke University in Durham, N.C. Ferns dominated many ancient landscapes for more than 150 million years.

The fossil record suggests that the diversity and abundance of ferns sharply declined in the Cretaceous period, which began about 145 million years ago. The fossil decline appears to coincide with the emergence and dramatic rise of angiosperms, or flowering plants, which today account for up to 300,000 species, says Pryer. Botanists often have linked the two trends, suggesting that flowering plants claimed the ferns' resources and relegated ferns to an evolutionary backwater.

New analyses of fern DNA, however, hint at a different scenario, in which ferns reversed their decline. In 45 species of ferns, Pryer and her colleagues looked at two genes taken from chloroplasts, the structures in plant cells that convert sunlight into energy. They also scrutinized two chloroplast genes and one other gene taken from 84 species of angiosperms. The surprising results suggest that polypod ferns--a group within leptosporangiates that includes more than 80 percent of living fern species--experienced an explosion of diversification between 20 million and 50 million years after the angiosperms appeared on the botanical scene. …

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