First Look At The First Flower, Ancestral To All Others

By Gemma Tarlach | August 1, 2017 10:00 am
The first flower, revealed today by researchers in Nature Communications, is more than 140 million years old. (Credit Hervé Sauquet and Jürg Schönenberger)

The first flower, revealed today by researchers in Nature Communications, is more than 140 million years old. (Credit Hervé Sauquet and Jürg Schönenberger)

About 90 percent of all terrestrial plants today are angiosperms, or flowering plants. Yet finding the flower ancestral to them all has been a, ahem, fruitless search. Until now.

Although plants do turn up in the fossil record — such as the stunning 52-million-year-old tomatillos revealed earlier this year — some of the most important, evolutionarily speaking, remain elusive.

Such is the case with the first angiosperm, which researchers estimate evolved between 140 million and 250 million years ago. Once on the scene, flowering plants diversified rapidly, spreading around the globe and taking over from the previously dominant gymnosperms (which today survive as conifers, cycads and a variety of bushy species).

Gymnosperms, which have been around for at least 383 million years, have exposed reproductive parts, just hanging out there for all to see. But angiosperms evolved to have their bits enclosed in often elaborate flower structures that mature into fruits.

Today, about 9 out of every 10 plants on the seven continents (yes, even Antarctica has ’em) are angiosperms, ranging from the stinky corpse lily to the dandelions popping up in your yard. Despite their enormous diversity in appearance, life cycle and ecological niche, researchers believe all 225,000-plus species of angiosperms descended from a single ancestor.

Finding that very first “ancestral flower” has been the mission of many a budding paleobotanist. But so far the oldest fossil flowers found have been about 130 million years old, and the handful of examples are already diversified into distinct species.

A New Approach Blooms

Without fossil evidence, researchers turned to another avenue of research: the data crunch.

Reporting today in Nature Communications, a team compiled the world’s largest bouquet of flower trait data points — nearly 13,500 of them from 792 species representing 98 percent of all angiosperm orders (that’s three layers up from species in taxonomic ranking).

That’s one heck of a daisy chain of data.

From all that information on flowers living and fossilized, the researchers used molecular dating to build a chronogram. In other words, they number-crunched a family tree, based on differences between species, which arose through mutations. These mutations occur at a fairly steady rate, so the more differences there are between two species, the further back you’ll find their last common ancestor (LCA).

At the same time, by moving back in time along the lineage, researchers can strip away derived traits — characteristics that arose from those later mutations — and zero in on the traits most likely present in the LCA.

The methods of analysis for this kind of study — and the team used three different approaches — are all complex and may seem a bit brain-numbing to the outsider not immersed in them. (Don’t believe me? Google reversible-jump Markov Chain Monte Carlo Bayesian approach. I’ll wait.)

And quite frankly, getting into the weeds of Bayesian computation is beyond the Dead Things mission. But what is important to understand is that these are tested, respected methods, widely used in the field. The team didn’t pull the first flower out of thin air.

Most importantly, the team’s results created a testable hypothesis for the diversification of the earliest angiosperms that other researchers can now, well, test.

The Root Of It All

According to today’s paper, the ancestral flower was bisexual, with both male and female parts, and had whorl formations of petal-like organs, in sets of three, rather than spiral formations. Perhaps most interestingly, no living species has the same combination of characteristics suggested by the data-driven model. But don’t just take it from me. Today’s paper is open access to all, so dig in and enjoy.

A simplified version of the angiosperm evolutionary tree (Credit HervéSauquet and Jürg Schönenberger)

A simplified version of the angiosperm evolutionary tree based on today’s paper. (Credit Hervé Sauquet and Jürg Schönenberger)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: biology, paleobotany
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  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    That is way too sophisticated to be the “first” flower. One expects something akin to modified leaves, re mosses.

    reversible-jump Markov Chain Monte Carlo Bayesian approach” When you lack facts, any inputs plus an impeller will do. Amorphous, stochastic, ergodic, self-ordering. Voila.

    www1(.)maths.leeds.ac.uk/~voss/projects/2011-RJMCMC/AiJialin.pdf

    • OWilson

      I was going to mention that, then I noticed that they say it evolved over 140 to 250 million years ago.

      I would think this “artists impression” is representative of the later version?

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        As Anthony Scaramucci might say, in Brooklynese, “It’s a firetrucking magnolia pistalling its own stamen.”

        • OWilson

          Anthony who? :)

    • Devlin Tay

      My understanding (which may be wrong) is that this isn’t the FIRST FLOWER EVER, but the ancestor of every flowering plant existing today. The plant kingdom’s version of humankind’s Mitochondrial Eve, if you will. The Mitochondrial Eve hypothesis proposes that all human beings alive today are descended from a single human female who lived around 130,000 to 250,000 years ago. It doesn’t mean the Mitochondrial Eve was the very first human female, nor the only one back then.

      • Pawan Kumar Gupta

        Of course, this isn’t the look of First Flower .. . . Flower is a modified
        vegetative shoot. We should also think about the sporocarp of Rhynia, Ophioglossum then, towards the Gymnosperms especially about Gnetalian flowers (male and female cones/reproductive organs). The showed sketch distinctly shows whorls of well developed petals (calyx), developing but distinct androecium and gynaecium. It seems the flower of Magnoliales especially of Michaelia champaca (following the concepts of Hutchinson’s system). But, please consider also about the flower of Liriodendron tulipifera of the same family where all accessory floral parts appear as leaves/sepals/seploid perianth. Other features also follow
        Hutchinson’s primitive characters. But, ‘Hutchinson’ is not the ‘full and final’. …….. After all, . . I appreciate their attempts. Thanks.

  • joseph2237

    Artist concept is too complicated. Parts suggest pollination “Stigma and Stamen” to be pollinated by what. We are again stuck with the chicken or the egg. Even a daisy would be out of bounds.

    • Devlin Tay

      My understanding, which may be wrong, is that the authors are not claiming that this is the FIRST FLOWER EVER, but that it is the ancestor of every flowering plant existing today. The plant kingdom’s version of humankind’s Mitochondrial Eve, if you will. The Mitochondrial Eve hypothesis proposes that all human beings alive today are descended from a single human female who lived around 130,000 to 250,000 years ago. It doesn’t mean the Mitochondrial Eve was the very first human female, nor the only one back then.

      • joseph2237

        Tanks

    • http://www.smokershistory.com/ CarolAST

      Haven’t you seen a stamen curving over to pollinate the stigma?

    • Tayvl

      There are cannabis growers who certainly wish their plants weren’t able to self-pollinate… Pains are taken to see that it doesn’t happen. Not that I’m sure that applies to your thought here.

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