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The Seed of a Mystery

Solving Darwin’s Abominable Mystery: The Origin and Diversification of Flowering Plants

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Click here to watch Pamela Soltis on BUniverse.

Pamela Soltis, a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar and curator of the laboratory of molecular systematics and evolutionary genetics at the Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, delivers the College of Arts and Sciences Honors Program Annual Lecture. In 1879, Charles Darwin wrote a letter to a colleague in which he wondered about the seemingly sudden (in geologic terms) appearance and diversification of flowering plants (angiosperms) in a world that had previously known only gymnosperms (plants with exposed seeds, such as conifers). “The rapid rise and early diversification of angiosperms is an abominable mystery,” Darwin wrote. It is a mystery that has largely persisted to this day, according to Soltis.

With a fossil record dating back 130 million years, angiosperms are “the new kids on the block in terms of green plant evolution,” Soltis says. But these newcomers quickly spread to more than 300,000 separate species. “We see a lot of diversity of flowering plants at a certain point in time, but nothing before that,” she explains. “Where did all of these different lineages come from and how did they diversify so rapidly?” In addition, she notes that understanding the evolution of flowering plants can also inform our understanding of the evolution of the Earth’s insects, birds, and mammals — who feed on and spread the seeds of these plants.

According to Soltis, answers to the abominable mystery are being sought through systematic analysis of plant DNA, in order to place certain groups of species on an evolutionary family tree that corresponds with the development of certain plant “features that are critical to characterizing angiosperms.” Recent developments in DNA sequencing technology has vastly improved scientists’ ability to do such analysis, she says. Where previously researchers were able to look at only a few genes of a plant’s chloroplasts, they can now look over the entire genome, a development that has “massively increased the amount of data available.”

April 2, 2008, 8 p.m.
Metcalf Science Center

About the Speaker:
Pamela Soltis is the curator of the laboratory of molecular systematics and evolutionary genetics at the Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida. She has a doctorate from the University of Kansas and her research interests are angiosperm phylogeny, the evolution of the flower, conservation genetics of rare plants, phylogeography, and polyploidy. She is working with Yale’s Peabody Museum to set up exhibitions on the diversity of plants for several natural history museums.

Soltis is the president and former secretary of the Botanical Society of America. She is also a former president of the Society of Systematic Biologists and has served on the councils of the Society for the Study of Evolution, the American Society of Plant Taxonomists, and the American Genetics Association. In 2006, the Botanical Society of America honored Soltis with its Centennial Award, and she is also the recipient of a Mellon Faculty Fellowship, a US-UK Fulbright Distinguished Professor Award, and a University of Florida Research Foundation Professorship. She has served as associate editor of the journals Evolution, Systematic Biology, and Molecular Biology and Evolution.

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