Evolution of the First Flowers

Florida Museum of Natural History Study Provides New Insight.

The following story is contributed by the Florida Museum of Natural History, one of Natural History magazine’s Museum Partners. Members of any of our partner organizations receive Natural History as a benefit of their museum membership. At the Florida Museum of Natural History, visitors may enjoy hundreds of exotic butterflies in a rainforest setting, witness a South Florida Calusa Indian welcoming ceremony, experience a life-sized limestone cave, and see a mammoth and mastodon from the last Ice Age. Permanent exhibits include Northwest Florida: Waterways & Wildlife; South Florida People & Environments; Florida Fossils: Evolution of Life & Land; and the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity, which features the screened, outdoor Butterfly Rainforest exhibit with hundreds of live butterflies. Located at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, this is Florida’s state museum of natural history, dedicated to understanding, preserving and interpreting biological diversity and cultural heritage. For further information, visit the Museum’s Web site, www.flmnh.ufl.edu.

“The goal of this research is to understand the original regulatory program, or set of genetic switches, that produced the first flower in the common ancestor of all living flowering plants.”  —Study co-author Pam Soltis

avocado tree

Andre Chanderbali, lead author of a Florida Museum study on the evolution of flowering plants, examines a flower from an avocado tree (Persea americana) on the UF campus.

Jeff Gage

What did the first flowers look like? How did they evolve from non-flowering plants? A new study led by Florida Museum of Natural History researchers is helping shed light on the answers to those questions.

Charles Darwin described the sudden origin of flowering plants, which emerged about 130 million years ago, as an abominable mystery. “There was nothing like them before and nothing like them since,” said Andre Chanderbali, lead author of the study and a post-doctoral associate at the Florida Museum of Natural History. “The origin of the flower is the key to the origin of the angiosperms (flowering plants).”

The flower is one of the key innovations of evolution, responsible for a massive burst of evolution that has resulted in perhaps as many as 400,000 angiosperm species. Before flowering plants emerged, the seed-bearing plant world was dominated by gymnosperms, which have cone-like structures instead of flowers and include pine trees, sago palms and ginkgos. Gymnosperms first appeared in the fossil record about 360 million years ago, more than 200 million years before the first angiosperms did.

The new study, published in the May 18 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provides insight into how the first flowering plants evolved from pre-existing genetic programs found in gymnosperms and then developed into the diversity of flowering plants we see today.

“The goal of this research is to understand the original regulatory program, or set of genetic switches, that produced the first flower in the common ancestor of all living flowering plants,” said Pam Soltis, study co-author and curator of molecular systematics and evolutionary genetics at the Florida Museum.

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