Expert commentary: Flowering plant tree of life revealed


An international team of researchers, including scientists from CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, have produced a genomic ‘tree of life’ using the DNA sequences of more than 9,500 flowering plant species.

The tree of life was built using 1.8 billion letters of genetic code sequenced from living plants and centuries-old specimens held in herbaria across Australia and the world. It includes extinct and endangered species and contains 15 times more data than any comparable studies of the flowering plant tree of life, as well as 800 plants that have never had their DNA sequenced before.

The tree of life presents the most up-to-date understanding of flowering plants which will help scientists do everything from plant classification to discovery of new medicines. It is also a step toward building a tree of life for all 330,000 known species of flowering plants by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew’s Tree of Life Initiative.

The paper ‘Phylogenomics and the rise of the angiosperms‘ was published in the journal Nature by an international team of 279 scientists from 138 organisations internationally, led by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. CSIRO contributed to this collaborative effort through the Genomics for Australian Plants (GAP) Framework Initiative consortium led by Bioplatforms Australia and partner organisations.

Learn more about the research in this article by Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

All quotes below are available for use by media.

Why is the new flowering plant tree of life so significant?

CSIRO Research Scientist Dr Alexander Schmidt-Lebuhn, explains:

“The Genomics for Australian Plants consortium contributed DNA sequences of 774 Australian plant species. CSIRO, a major partner in the GAP consortium, contributed daisies and orchids from CSIRO’s National Research Collections Australia.

“The flowering plant tree of life maps how the flowering plants are related to each other. This important tool will have many uses from discovering new medicines, to biological control of invasive species. This is because closely related species tend to have similar pharmaceutical properties and may be vulnerable to the same biocontrol agents. What we know about one species can guide how we study, use and manage its relatives.”

CSIRO Research Scientist Dr Katharina Nargar, explains:

“The National Research Collections Australia at CSIRO hold 15 million specimens of plants, insects, fish and more. Our collections are hugely valuable in large-scale, international studies of biodiversity. They provide critical data on the many species which are only found in Australia, like the sexually deceptive hammer orchids, which trick male thynnid wasps to pollinate them by resembling female thynnid wasps.

“The flowering plant tree of life will help unravel the mystery of how flowering plants evolved. For example, it will help us understand how our highly unique Australian flora was assembled and evolved over time. The Australian continent has a long history of isolation from other landmasses and underwent drastic climatic changes over geological time. Of over 21,000 Australian plant species, more than 80 per cent occur nowhere else on the planet. Where did they come from? How did a changing climate impact their evolutionary trajectory?”

We acknowledge the contribution of the Genomics for Australian Plants (GAP) Framework Initiative consortium in the generation of data used in this publication. The Initiative is supported by funding from Bioplatforms Australia (enabled by NCRIS), the Ian Potter Foundation, Royal Botanic Gardens Foundation (Victoria), Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, the Royal Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust, the Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria, CSIRO, Centre for Australian National Biodiversity Research and the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, Western Australia.

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