Enormous diversity from evolutionary explosion of flowering plants

International team use 1.8 billion letters of genetic code to build ground-breaking tree of life

Graphic showing the new tree of life of flowering plants. Photo: Marc Appelhans / Zuntini et al

An international study involving researchers from the University of Göttingen investigated the evolution of flowering plants in extraordinary detail using advanced DNA sequencing technology. The researchers discovered that there was an evolutionary explosive development of flowering plants producing enormous diversity. Over 130 million years ago, this explosion in diversity gave rise to more than 80 per cent of the major lineages of flowering plants that exist today. The results were published in Nature.

A total of 279 scientists from 27 countries collaborated on the study. They took samples from around 8,000 plant genera – around 60 per cent of the total that exist worldwide today. The data set also includes preserved plants collected centuries ago, including plant species that have long been considered extinct. Using modern DNA sequencing techniques, the researchers decoded 353 genes from the nuclear genome of each of these plants. The family tree of the plants was "calibrated" with over 200 fossils, meaning that an age could be calculated for all of the branches of this tree of life.

Dr Marc Appelhans, Curator of the Herbarium at the University of Göttingen, was part of the project as an expert of the Citrus family. "Gene sequencing technology is constantly evolving and these cutting-edge techniques work very well with old plant material, like that held in the Herbarium Göttingen," he says. According to Appelhans, the study demonstrates how important such collections are for research: "These treasure troves contain the precious genetic information of plants that have been collected from all over the world over many centuries." The Herbarium Göttingen has an estimated 800,000 preserved plants and is one of the largest in Germany. Some of the most valuable samples in this collection are over 300 years old.

"The study reinforces an observation that Charles Darwin made back in 1879," says Appelhans. “In his research of plant fossils, the naturalist had noticed that flowering plants became dominant worldwide within a very short geological time period.”

Original publication: Zuntini, A.R., Carruthers, T., Maurin, O. et al., Phylogenomics and the rise of the angiosperms, Nature 2024. DOI: 10.1038/s41586-024-07324-0

Dr Marc Appelhans
University of Göttingen
Faculty of Biology and Psychology
Department of Systematics, Biodiversity and Evolution of Plants (with Herbarium)
Untere Karspüle 2, 37073 Göttingen, Germany
Tel: +49 (0)551 39 28220
Email: Marc.Appelhans(at)biologie.uni-goettingen.de