Samantha Frangos is a Laboratory Technician in the Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory of The New York Botanical Garden.
The green plant tree of life is built upon many evolutionary innovations. Plants have come a long way since they began as single-celled organisms one billion years ago. They have transitioned from water to land and managed to become the beautiful, towering, flowering and fruiting beings that are the backbone of life on earth. They have complex life histories—creating vascular systems, waxy cuticles, spores, seeds and flowers. These innovations define key turning points in the history of green plants, and they are what separate the major plant groups: green algae, mosses and liverworts, ferns, gymnosperms and flowering plants.
The One Thousand Plant Transcriptomes Initiative, also known as the 1KP initiative, is a global collaboration of nearly 200 plant scientists, including NYBG’s Dr. Dennis Stevenson. “This long term project integrates field work, herbarium research, and living collections with the latest in laboratory and information sciences as an international collaboration,” Dr Stevenson said. For almost 10 years, this group has been attempting to sequence the genes of one thousand plants, spanning every plant family on the tree of life. The publication of these sequences, 1,147 in total, brings science significantly closer to understanding how the tree of life works in the plant kingdom. By examining the similarities and differences in genes, we can more fully understand how plants created evolutionarily significant transitions. For example: we can use this data to understand how conifers, which disperse their seeds in cones, are related to flowering plants, which disperse their seeds in fruit and only appeared in the fossil record about 200 million years ago.
Samantha Frangos is a Research Technician in NYBG’s Pfizer Plant Research Laboratory.
The concept of a “living fossil” was first proposed by Darwin in his book On the Origin of Species in 1859. The term “living fossil” is used to describe species that have managed to remain physically identical over the course of millennia and are still alive today. As these species have survived a wide range of extreme environmental conditions, including several mass extinctions, they beg the question: how have the living fossils been able to persist over millions of years? Scientists at The New York Botanical Garden believe the answer may be found in the living fossils of the plant kingdom. Most of these “living fossil” plant species are in the cone-bearing, non-flowering group of plants, called gymnosperms. Gymnosperms have very large and complex genomes, some being almost seven times the size of a human genome. Decoding the genomes of these species may give us some clues as to understanding their resilience over time.
The most widely recognized living fossil of the plant kingdom is Ginkgo biloba. It is easily recognizable by its distinct fan shape leaves that resemble those of the maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris), giving it the common name of maidenhair tree. Ginkgo has remained unchanged for over 280 million years, surviving several glaciation events, fluctuations of carbon dioxide concentration and temperature, and mass extinctions. Because of its resilience, it is often seen lining city streets, including the streets that border The New York Botanical Garden.