Magazine article Natural History

Gene Pool

Magazine article Natural History

Gene Pool

Article excerpt

Some organisms develop genetic mutations by incorporating genetic material from unrelated individuals. This evolutionary shortcut, called lateral gene transfer, has been frequently found in singlecelled organisms, such as bacteria, but scientists are just beginning to recognize its presence in multicellular organisms. Researchers have discovered evidence that distantly related grasses can swap genes.

An international team of geneticists, led by evolutionary plant biologist Luke T. Dunning of the University of Sheffield in the UK, sequenced the DNA of the grass Alloteropsis semialata, typically found in tropical areas of Africa, Asia, and Australia. A. semialata is the only plant whose variants use different kinds of photosynthesis, presenting a unique opportunity to study plant evolution. The grass's African subspecies, like the majority of plants, uses C3 photosynthesis, while its other subspecies uses C4 photosynthesis, ideal for plants in drought-prone areas. Previous research found that the latter subspecies of A. semialata contained at least two genes that were from distantly related grasses. In this new in-depth analysis comparing over 22,000 A. semialata genes to those of nearly 150 other grass species, the researchers found a total of fifty-nine genes that appear to have come from at least nine other distantly related plants.

Some of those distant genes are used in photosynthesis, suggesting that they are crucial to the plant's functioning and survival. …

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