Evolution can cause a rapid reduction in genome size

It would appear reasonable to assume that two closely related plant species would have similar genetic blueprints. However, scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, working in cooperation with an international research team have now decoded, for the first time, the entire genome of the lyre-leaved rock cress (Arabidopsis lyrata), a close relative of the thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), the model plant used by geneticists. They discovered that the genome of the lyre-leaved rock cress is fifty percent bigger than that of the thale cress. Moreover, these changes arose over a very short period in evolutionary terms. This new high-quality genome analysis will provide a basis for further detailed comparative studies on the function, ecology and evolution of the plant genus Arabidopsis.

Genome size among the different species of the plant kingdom varies significantly. At the upper end of the currently known spectrum, scientists have identified the herb Paris or true-lover’s knot (Paris quadrifolia), whose genome is a good thousand times longer than that of the carnivorous plants from the genus Genlisea. However, these plants are so distantly related that it is almost impossible to identify the evolutionary forces at work in the individual species. Therefore, researchers from Detlef Weigel’s Department of Molecular Biology at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen working in cooperation with an international research team selected for their genome study a species closely related to the thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana), probably the most widely studied flowering plant in genetics. The species in question was lyre-leaved rock cress (Arabidopsis lyrata) which, unlike thale cress, is unable to self-fertilise. “Thale cress and lyre-leaved rock cress shared an ancestor around ten million years ago, after which their evolutionary lineages diverged,” explains Ya-Long Guo from the MPI for Developmental Biology.

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