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Research Group Is Cultivating the Family Tree of Plant Life

April 1996

Green plants--and the biologists who study their evolution--are getting organized.

The push is coming from a group of plant biologists who want to help clean up the welter of different systems that scientists use for classifying and naming plants. In the process they hope to make the entire study of plants a bit more efficient.

"Green plants represent one of evolution's great success stories," says Brent Mishler of the University of California at Berkeley, one of the project's coordinators. "They're one of the few lineages that conquered the land."

The Green Plant Phylogeny Research Coordination Group (GPPRCG) is helping scientists determine the correct arrangement of hundreds of species of green plants according to evolutionary history, connecting, for example, green algae with early land plants such as mosses, liverworts and hornworts.

In the process of discovering the plants' proper places, GPPRCG expects to link the laboratories and research efforts of scientists across the United States and abroad. In addition, GPPRCG is coordinating data gathering activities, facilitating the use of data bases for morphologic and molecular information, exploring new approaches to green plant phylogeny analysis, and finding new mechanisms to disseminate data to researchers, teachers and students.

NSF and the Departments of Energy and Agriculture are co-sponsors of the project. They expect to see many beneficial results, including:

  • Insights into the mysteries that still surround development of life on earth.
  • Enhancements to pharmaceutical research, which often relies on finding close relatives to flora with known medicinal value.
  • Improved clarity in the presentation of green plant taxonomy in textbooks.
  • More efficient ways for plant biologists to select research topics.

The World Wide Web will be one of GPPRCG's main methods of publishing data, discussing work in process, and displaying the minutes from the group's meetings. The Web address is: http://ucjeps.berkeley.edu/bryolab/GPphylo/.

In the GPPRCG meetings held so far, plant biologists discussed how research topics should be chosen. So far, the main consensus is clear: Not the way they're chosen now.

"Very often the selection of the plants to be studied is guided by the interests of the researcher and the local availability of samples. Thus, the best 'exemplar taxa' are not always included in the study," says Russell Chapman of Louisiana State University, another project coordinator.

The need to get organized and set priorities is made more pressing, Chapman notes, by recent advances in gene sequencing and the resulting avalanche of new data.

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