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Studies probe rapid evolution of Chinese tallow trees

HOUSTON, Aug. 25, 2003 -- The evolution of species is usually thought to be long and arduous, with the culling of bad mutations and the natural selection of good ones taking tens of thousands, if not millions, of years. But throughout the southern coastal regions of the United States, the process may be unfolding at a dramatic pace -- on the order of decades -- thanks to something Benjamin Franklin did in 1772.

Franklin, then in Europe, sent Chinese tallow tree seedlings to an associate in Georgia. Known for its heart-shaped leaves and white fruits, the Chinese tallow tree originated in Asia. The U.S. government brought it to the Houston area around 1900 in hope of using its wax-covered seeds as an agricultural crop. Rice University biologists Evan Siemann and William Rogers have discovered surprising evidence that the trees in Texas are genetically different from their Asian forebears.

With two new grants from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), Siemann, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and Rogers, Faculty Fellow, plan a detailed comparison of Chinese tallow trees from the U.S. Gulf Coast, Hawaii and China. In field studies and lab experiments, Siemann, Rogers and colleagues will chart the genetic differences between the regional varieties of tallow trees, and they'll study how well the trees from each region survive when they are transplanted to other regions. Ultimately, they hope to find out whether the genetic changes they have already documented are occurring as a result of natural selection.

"This is the single best example of post-introduction genetic change by any plant species," said Siemann. "What we don't know is whether those genetic changes are important for the Chinese tallow trees' success as an invader."

On the coastal plains of the U.S., Chinese tallow trees are a scourge. In a scant 30 years, they can reduce an ecologically diverse pr
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Contact: Jade Boyd
jadeboyd@rice.edu
713-348-6778
Rice University
25-Aug-2003


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