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Flowering plants likely arose between 149 and 256 million years ago, according to the new UCL-led study.

This study, published by researchers from the UK and China in New Phytologist, shows that flowering plants are not as old as previous molecular studies suggest, and not as young as the true interpretation of the fossil record.

The findings highlight the power of complementary studies based on molecular data and the fossil record, and the divergent approaches that reveal evolutionary timelines for in-depth understanding of evolutionary dynamics millions of years ago.

Lead author of the study, Dr. Jose Barba-Montoya (UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment), “The discrepancy between predictions of flowering plant evolution from molecular data and the fossil record has sparked controversy, and Darwin described the origin of this group as ‘a hideous mystery’.

“To reveal the key to unraveling the mystery of the origin of flowers, we carefully analyzed the genetic makeup of flowering plants and the rate at which mutations accumulate in their genomes.

Through the lens of the fossil record, a Cretaceous Terrestrial Revolution ensued, in which flowering plants suddenly diversified, explosive co-evolution of pollinators, herbivores, and predators.

However, studies of molecular clock research have suggested that it is an earlier source for flowering plants, implying a cryptic development of flowers that has not been documented in the fossil record.

Professor Philip Donoghue of the Bristol School of Earth Science University and the study’s co-authors said, ” The discrepancy between these two approaches is the result of faulty precision on both the paleontological and molecular evolutionary time scales.

Paleontological timelines calibrate the tree of the plant family with geological time, based on the earliest fossil evidence for its component branches. Molecular timelines enhance this approach by using additional evidence from genomes for genetic distances between species, aiming to overcome gaps in the fossil record.

Professor Ziheng Yang (UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment) said, ” Previous studies on the molecular time scale have failed to explore the effects of experimental variables and therefore incorrectly estimate the probable age for flowering plants .”

Similarly, interpretations of the fossil record have not fully considered its shortcomings as an archive of evolutionary history; that is, the earliest fossil evidence for flowering plants comes from non-primitive flowering plant lineages, ” said Professor Donoghue .

The researchers compiled a large collection of genetic data for many flowering plant groups, including a dataset of 83 genes with 644 taxa that touch on the timeline of flowering plant diversification, as well as a comprehensive set of fossil evidence.

Dr Mario dos Reis (School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary University of London), ” Using Bayesian statistical methods through physics and mathematical tools to model how the evolutionary rate changes over time, we have revealed that there is wide uncertainty in the estimates of flowering plant age. they are all of early and middle Cretaceous origin for the group, ” he says.

Source/Compilation: Popular Agriculture

For More Information:  Jose Barba-Montoya et al, Constraining uncertainty in the timescale of angiosperm evolution and the veracity of a Cretaceous Terrestrial Revolution,  New Phytologist  (2018). DOI: 10.1111/nph.15011

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