Embargoed until 2 P.M. EST
NSF PR 01-09 - January 31, 2001
Cheryl Dybas, NSF
Greg Borzo, Field Museum
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Apparently, the lowly fern deserves more respect.
New research scheduled to appear as the journal Nature's
cover story on February 1 concludes that ferns and
horsetails are not -- as currently believed -- lower,
transitional evolutionary grades between mosses and
flowering plants. In fact, ferns and horsetails, together,
are the closest living relatives to seed plants.
"Today's systematists are using genomic tools to re-write
the textbooks on animal and plant evolution," says
James Rodman, program director in NSF's division of
environmental biology, which funded the research.
"This research is the latest major rearrangement of
the plant tree of life. It will encourage others to
explore ferns as model organisms for basic ecological
and physiological studies."
The research calls for rethinking the "family tree"
of green plants, according to scientists. Also, it
uncovers a research shortcoming: All main plant model
organisms used for research (such as Arabidopsis,
which became the first plant to have all its genes
sequenced) are recently evolved flowering plants.
This limitation could compromise scientific research.
Models in the newly identified fern and horsetail
lineage are needed to round out the study of plant
development and evolution. This could help scientists
fight invasive species, engineer genetic traits, develop
better crops and prospect the botanical world for
The new research uses morphological and DNA sequence
data to show that horsetails and ferns make up one
genetically related group, which evolved in parallel
to the other major genetically related group made
up of seed plants and including flowering plants.
"Our discovery that 99 percent of vascular plants fall
into two major lineages with separate evolutionary
histories dating back 400 million years. It will likely
have a significant impact on several disciplines,
including ecology, evolutionary biology and plant
developmental genetics," said Kathleen Pryer, lead
author of the paper and assistant curator in botany
at The Field Museum in Chicago. "Viewing these two
genetically related groups as contemporaneous and
ancient lineages will likely also have profound consequences
on our understanding of how terrestrial ecosystems
and landscapes evolved."
The work of Pryer and her colleagues builds on the
Deep Green project, a collaboration of researchers
dedicated to uncovering the evolution of and interrelation
of all green plants. In 1999, Deep Green reported
at an international botanical conference that DNA
analysis indicates that all green plants -- from the
tiniest single-celled algae to the grandest redwoods
-- descended from a common single-celled ancestor
a billion years ago. Green plants, which include some
500,000 species, are among the best-documented groups
in the tree of life.