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Recreating a Species: Evolution Turns Predictable

November 1996

If a daisy were given another chance at evolution, would it still look like a daisy? Would a rose still smell like a rose?

Scientists have long wondered how much of a role chance plays in evolution, and the answer, at least for one species of sunflower, is not much. If the 100,000-year-old species developed all over again, it would still be the same.

This was a surprising finding since much of evolutionary theory suggests that chance is a significant player in speciation.

The research, done by NSF-funded Loren Rieseberg, an evolutionary biologist at Indiana University in Bloomington, and his colleagues, was published in the journal, Science. Rieseberg focused on the anomalous sunflower or Helianthus anomalus because it is a naturally occurring hybrid. It developed from the interbreeding of two other sunflowers: the common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) and the petioled sunflower (Helianthus petiolaris).

The researchers assumed they could interbreed the two parent species and get another flower, but they did not know if they could still get the anomalous sunflower, or if a totally new species would develop after a few generations.

In all three trials, the anomalous sunflower reappeared within four generations. Not only did the flowers look like their counterparts found in the Great Basin desert, DNA testing showed that they were almost identical.

"I was pretty astonished," Rieseberg told The New York Times. "I expected to see some similarities, some concordance, but I didn't expect to see anything like this. I think we'll find that much more about evolution is repeatable and predictable."

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