If you eat bread stuffing or grain-fed turkey this Thanksgiving, give thanks to the grasses — a family of plants that includes wheat, oats, corn and rice. Some grasses, such as corn and sugar cane, have evolved a unique way of harvesting energy from the sun that's more efficient in hot, arid conditions. A new grass family tree reveals how this mode of photosynthesis came to be.
Grasses that use the C4 photosynthetic pathway -- like these tufts of Enneapogon scaber from Namibia -- are particularly good at growing in hot, dry environments. Credit: Photo by study co-author J. Travis Columbus, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden and Claremont Graduate University.
The results may one day help scientists develop more drought-tolerant grains, say scientists working at the U. S. National Evolutionary Synthesis Center.
From the grasslands of North America, to the pampas of South America, to the steppes of Eurasia and the savannas of the tropics, the grass family contains more than 10,000 species, including the world's three most important crops: wheat, rice and corn. We rely on grasses for sugar, liquor, bread, and livestock fodder.
Like all plants, grasses harvest energy from sunlight by means of photosynthesis. But grasses use two strategies that differ in how they take up carbon dioxide from the air and convert it into the starches and sugars vital to plant growth. The majority of grasses use a mode of photosynthesis called the C3 pathway, but many species — especially those in hot, tropical climates — use an alternate mode of photosynthesis known as C4. In hot, arid environments, C4 grasses such as maize, sugar cane, sorghum and millet have a leg up over C3 plants because they use water more efficiently.An international team of researchers wanted to figure out how many times, and when, the C4 strategy came to be. To find out, they used DNA sequence data from three chloroplast genes to reconstruct the grass family tree. The resulting phylogeny represents 531 species, including 93 species for which DNA sequence data was previously unavailable.
The results suggest that the C4 pathway has evolved in the grasses more than 20 separate times within the last 30 or so million years, Edwards said.
What's most surprising, she added, is that C4 evolution seems to be a one-way street – i.e., once the pathway evolves, there's no turning back. "We can't say whether it is evolutionarily 'impossible', or whether there simply hasn't been a good reason to do it, but it seems increasingly unlikely that any C4 grasses have ever reverted to the C3 condition," Edwards said.
"The new tree will be extremely useful for anyone who works on grasses," she added.
For example, scientists are currently trying to engineer the C4 photosynthetic pathway into C3 crops like rice to produce more stress-tolerant plants. By helping researchers identify pairs of closely related C3 and C4 species, the evolutionary relationships revealed in this study could help pinpoint the genetic changes necessary to do that.
"The next challenge is getting these species into cultivation and studying them closely, and ideally, sequencing their genomes," Edwards said.
The results will be published this week in the journal New Phytologist.
CITATION: Grass Phylogeny Working Group II (2011). "New grass phylogeny resolves deep evolutionary relationships and discovers C4 origins." New Phytologist. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8137.2011.03972.x
The National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) is a nonprofit science center dedicated to cross-disciplinary research in evolution. Funded by the National Science Foundation, NESCent is jointly operated by Duke University, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University. For more information about research and training opportunities at NESCent, visit www.nescent.org.
Robin Ann Smith | EurekAlert!
One step closer to reality
20.04.2018 | Max-Planck-Institut für Entwicklungsbiologie
The dark side of cichlid fish: from cannibal to caregiver
20.04.2018 | Veterinärmedizinische Universität Wien
University of Connecticut researchers have created a biodegradable composite made of silk fibers that can be used to repair broken load-bearing bones without the complications sometimes presented by other materials.
Repairing major load-bearing bones such as those in the leg can be a long and uncomfortable process.
Study published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces is the outcome of an international effort that included teams from Dresden and Berlin in Germany, and the US.
Scientists at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) together with colleagues from the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (HZB) and the University of Virginia...
Novel highly efficient and brilliant gamma-ray source: Based on model calculations, physicists of the Max PIanck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg propose a novel method for an efficient high-brilliance gamma-ray source. A giant collimated gamma-ray pulse is generated from the interaction of a dense ultra-relativistic electron beam with a thin solid conductor. Energetic gamma-rays are copiously produced as the electron beam splits into filaments while propagating across the conductor. The resulting gamma-ray energy and flux enable novel experiments in nuclear and fundamental physics.
The typical wavelength of light interacting with an object of the microcosm scales with the size of this object. For atoms, this ranges from visible light to...
Stable joint cartilage can be produced from adult stem cells originating from bone marrow. This is made possible by inducing specific molecular processes occurring during embryonic cartilage formation, as researchers from the University and University Hospital of Basel report in the scientific journal PNAS.
Certain mesenchymal stem/stromal cells from the bone marrow of adults are considered extremely promising for skeletal tissue regeneration. These adult stem...
In the fight against cancer, scientists are developing new drugs to hit tumor cells at so far unused weak points. Such a “sore spot” is the protein complex...
13.04.2018 | Event News
12.04.2018 | Event News
09.04.2018 | Event News
20.04.2018 | Physics and Astronomy
20.04.2018 | Interdisciplinary Research
20.04.2018 | Physics and Astronomy