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Cross-species mating may be evolutionarily important and lead to rapid change, say IUB researchers

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Like the snap of a clothespin, the sudden mixing of closely related species may occasionally provide the energy to impel rapid evolutionary change, according to a new report by researchers from Indiana University Bloomington and three other institutions. Their paper will be made available online by Science magazine's "Science Express" service on Thursday (August 7) at 2 p.m. EDT.

A study of sunflower species that began 15 years ago shows that the sudden mixing and matching of different species' genes can create genetic super-combinations that are considerably more advantageous to the survival and reproduction of their owners than the gene combinations their parents possess.

"This is the clearest evidence to date that hybridization can be evolutionarily important," said IUB biologist Loren Rieseberg, who led the research. "What's more, we were able to demonstrate a possible mechanism for rapid evolutionary change by replicating the births of three unusual and ecologically divergent species within an extremely short period of time -- just a few generations."

The finding comes a month after IUB biologist Jeffrey Palmer and colleagues suggested in a letter to Nature that genetic exchange between completely unrelated species has occurred more often than experts previously thought.

There are many modern examples of hybridization in nature, some forced, some natural. Mules are bred by humans from horses and donkeys, are completely sterile, and represent an evolutionary dead-end. But there are other species-crossings that do just fine, such as offspring of the notoriously promiscuous oak tree species, which hybridize so often species-namers commonly joke about not being able to keep up.

Still, cross-species matings usually result in sickness or sterility, if the offspring get that far -- many naturally abort. Hybrid offspring that are fertile but sick or weak will not be able to compete with the purer offspring of
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Contact: David Bricker
brickerd@indiana.edu
812-856-9035
Indiana University
7-Aug-2003


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