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Lateral transmission of genes for C4 photosynthesis

The origin of complex traits, such as eyes and wings, has been studied by biologists since Darwin. In all cases looked-at so far, new traits have arisen through the modification of genes inherited from ancestors, and we’ve long understood how these evolutionary adaptations are passed from parents to offspring. But in a new paper published this month in Current Biology, we’ve discovered an exception to this rule, showing that adaptive genes required for a complex trait can be transmitted between distant plant cousins without direct contact between the species.

We looked at the evolution of genes involved in the C4 photosynthetic pathway, a well-studied complex trait that boosts productivity in hot environments. Our study organism was Alloteropsis semialata, an African grass that’s a favourite of ours for work on C4 evolution and ecology. For the first time, our work has revealed that crucial elements of this pathway have been transmitted between distantly related grass species. This unexpected discovery of adaptation by “lateral gene transfer” adds to growing evidence that the evolutionary tree of life is better described as a tangled bush. Crucially, it shows that genetic adaptations can cross the species boundary and spread among unrelated plants.

Lateral gene transfer. Credit: Les Watson and Wikipedia Commons

Lateral gene transfer among grass species: photo credits Les Watson and Wikipedia Commons.

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