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History of plants key to their future

Molecular biologists have used DNA sequencing to map the evolution of coffee and tropical palm trees.

Climate Change and Environment

Conservation scientists are tasked with preserving the ecosystems that support us in such a way that they can sustain current and potentially new species. Insights into the environmental and genetic factors that drive the evolution of plants are thus important. Madagascar's wild coffee trees and the palm family of South America constitute excellent case studies of plant evolution. The EU-funded project 'A multilocus approach to the phylogenetic inference of an island and continental plant radiations' (PLANT SPECIATION) mapped their evolutionary histories using DNA evidence. For the South American palm (Astrocaryum), gene sequencing revealed an increased rate of speciation about 13 million years ago. This coincides with a period of climate change and the elevation of the Andean mountains. In the case of the Coffea genus, the entire genome of commercial coffee was easily accessible. As such, researchers were able to characterise a set of 1 700 DNA fragments known as retrotransposons. They also mapped the habitat type and geographic region of individual Coffea species. Results indicated a north-to-south speciation pattern. PLANT SPECIATION has generated valuable knowledge about the evolution of these economically relevant plants. This will inform the sustainable use of plant genetic resources and the optimisation of crop improvement programmes.

Keywords

Plants, DNA sequencing, tropical palm tree, conservation, ecosystem, wild coffee tree, plant evolution, phylogenetic, speciation, retrotransposons

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