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Taste for Meat: Scientists Trace Genetic Route of Carnivorous Plants

Feb 07, 2017 10:44 AM EST
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It's not all common, but carnivory in plants is a fascinating subject. After all, there are only a few examples of these strange anomalies in the wild.

The Pitcher Plant's Journey to Carnivory

A new study traced the origins of carnivory in a number of distantly related species such as the American, Australian and Asian pitcher plants, according to a report from Phys Org.

Pitcher plant is one of the most prevalent carnivorous plant species in the world. Named after its pitcher shape body, the plant feed on insects by luring them into its waxy cupped leaf that's filled with digestive fluid, which breaks down the prey. 

Their findings revealed that while these species all evolved separately -- with millions of years in between -- to reach their carnivorous state, all of them took a remarkably similar path to get there.

As it turns out, there aren't many ways a plant could evolve to become carnivorous. The study suggests the existence of several species of carnivorous plants is an example of convergent evolution, which is when unrelated species evolve with similar properties independent of each other.

"It suggests that there are only limited pathways for becoming a carnivorous plant," University at Buffalo biologist Victor A. Albert explained. "These plants have a genetic tool kit, and they're trying to come up with an answer to the problem of how to become carnivorous. And in the end, they all come up with the same solution."

Albert was part of the international research team that was led by Mitsuyasu Hasebe, Ph.D., of the National Institute for Basic Biology in Japan and SOKENDAI (The Graduate University for Advanced Studies) in Japan. Other members of the team are Kenji Fukushima, PhD and Shuaicheng Li, PhD.

Carnivory as a Means of Survival

The researchers analyzed the genes of several carnivorous plants and sequenced the genome of the Australian pitcher plant, discovering that a number of proteins originally used to defend against diseases and other stresses developed over time to become digestive enzymes that help the plant digest their victims' bodies.

Fukushima pointed out that carnivorous plants' ability to trap and digest animals is a key for their survival in "nutrient-poor environments."

They also found out that distantly related carnivorous plants release genes with the same evolutionary origin in creating digestive-fluid proteins, a report from Nature revealed. In these different species, some of the genes even changed the shape of the enzymes they encode.

The study was published online on the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

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