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Rapidly evolving genes providing new insights in plant evolution

Blacksburg, Va. Flowering plants are the largest group of plants and contain just about all of our food crops. Khidir Hilu's research using rapidly evolving genes to determine the molecular evolution of flowering plants is providing new insights into plant relationships, according to the cover story article in the recently released December 2003 issue of the American Journal of Botany (Angiosperm phylogeny based on <011>matK sequence information1).

Flowering plants include cereals such as wheat, barley, ryes, and corn; major starch plants such as potatoes and sweet potatoes; legumes such as soybeans, beans, and peanuts; all of our fruit crops, spices, and medicinal plants. Also among the approximately 300,000 species of flowering plants are those that provide almost all our lumber (excluding pines).

"Scientists in the past tried to look at how the plants relate to each other and to classify them by the way they looked, their morphology, anatomy, and chemistry," Hilu, professor of biology in the College of Science at Virginia Tech, said. "But recently, people started using molecular biology, the sequence of genes, to infer relationships and classification. With this molecular approach, the whole classification has been revised and the pattern of evolution looks different from what we perceived before."

Using the molecular approach in understanding the angiosperms, or flowering plants, scientists traditionally used slowly evolving genes, or genes that mutate at a very slow rate, to understand the deep relationship between the families and orders of the plants, Hilu said. In fact, the use of slowly evolving genes was the traditional way of understanding deep relationships not only in plants, but also in animals.

However, Hilu and his colleagues have come up with a new approach using rapidly evolving genes to understand deep-level relationships. Those genes mutate at higher rates than the slowly evolving genes. Although evol
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Contact: Sally Harris
slharris@vt.edu
540-231-6759
Virginia Tech
12-Jan-2004


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