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article imageDNA duplication: a mechanism for 'survival of the fittest'

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     Mar 30, 2009 in Science
Researchers have recently discovered how plants were able to survive the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction that drove the dinosaurs to extinction 65 million years ago. Doubling of DNA is the answer.
In an article that is to appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers connected to the University of Gent (Belgium) publish some interesting findings with respect to DNA in plants.
The study of entire genomes is a very young science. It started around 1990 with the human genome project. In 2003, the project was finalized and the results published. The knowledge gained and the technology developed during this project led to an explosion of genome-decoding projects.
In light of human overpopulation and the problems this entails, especially where food is concerned, plants are a logical candidate for many of these research projects. This has led time and again to the discovery that the entire genome of plants was duplicated one or more times during their evolutionary history.
The group led by researcher Yves Van de Peer did notice that the most recent duplications all happened at approximately the same time, between 40 and 80 million years ago. Using advanced techniques, they were able to zoom in on a more precise date, and this turned out to be 65 million years ago, the very time of the mass extinction that killed off the dinosaurs (and loads of other species).
The researchers concluded that plants with a duplicated genome were apparently better adapted for surviving in a radically altered environment. Under normal circumstances, DNA duplications are disadvantageous. However, the circumstances were not normal at the time, and the very properties that would normally lead to the disappearance of organisms with a double genome, could now encourage their survival by making them better adapted to a new climate.
In earlier research, Yves Van de Peer had already discovered very old genome duplications in early ancestors of vertebrates and fish. He showed that these duplications were probably crucial for the development of vertebrates, and therefore also of humans.
This means that genome duplication could be a universal mechanism that has led to a more important role of flowering plants and vertebrates on the planet.
More about Dna duplication, Cretacious-teriary mass extinction, Altered climatic conditions
 
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