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Jumping Genes and the Spectacular Evolution of Flowering Plants

Jumping Genes and the Spectacular Evolution of Flowering Plants

By Keith Oliver, Jen McComb & Wayne Greene

The emergence and rapid rise of flowering plants is one of the most extraordinary and yet still not fully explained phenomena in evolutionary history. Could what Darwin himself called an “abominable mystery” be caused by jumping genes?

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Flowering plants are amazingly diverse organisms. At one extreme are species of duckweed that comprise single floating leaves just 1 mm in length. At the other extreme are giant banyan trees that may cover an area of more than a hectare and species of eucalypts standing more than 80 metres tall.

All told, there are at least 350,000 species of flowering plants distributed globally from the tropics to even the continent of Antarctica, where two species of grasses exist.

Flowering plants are second only to insects in terms of species diversity on Earth, and include all annuals as well as all plants with a carnivorous or parasitic lifestyle. This sharply contrasts with their non-flowering relatives, such as conifers and cycads, which comprise barely 1000 species and seem to be evolving slowly.

The apparent abrupt origin of flowering plants in the Cretaceous period 90–135 million years ago and their extra­ordinarily rapid diversification did not go unnoticed by Charles Darwin. He famously referred to this phenomenon as an “abominable mystery” as it appeared to conflict with his notion of evolutionary gradualism in which “nature does not make a leap”.

Modern explanations for the spectacular success of flowering plants include their propensity to undergo duplications of their entire genome as well as interspecies hybridisation, while much diversity...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.