Grasses are the most ecologically and economically important group of plants on Earth. They cover over 30% of the land surface and provide us with most of our food, including rice, wheat, maize, and barley. A new study has revealed that grasses have a unique evolutionary advantage: they can borrow genes from their neighbors.
This process, known as lateral gene transfer (LGT), is relatively rare in most plants. However, the study, published in the journal New Phytologist, found that LGT is common in grasses. The researchers sequenced the genomes of multiple species of tropical grass and determined at different time points in their evolution how many genes were acquired – giving a rate of accumulation.
The researchers found that grasses acquire genes from their neighbors at a rate of about 1 gene per 100,000 generations. This is much higher than the rate of gene transfer between species through sexual reproduction.
The genes that grasses borrow from their neighbors can give them a variety of advantages, such as resistance to pests and diseases, tolerance to drought and salinity, and increased yields. For example, one grass species was found to have borrowed a gene from a bacterium that makes it resistant to a common herbicide.
The researchers believe that LGT has played a major role in the evolution of grasses, and that it is one of the reasons why they are so successful and diverse.
Implications for humans
The discovery that grasses can borrow genes from their neighbors has a number of implications for humans. First, it could help us to develop new crop varieties that are more resistant to pests and diseases, and more tolerant of drought and salinity. This would be particularly important in the face of climate change.
Second, LGT could be used to develop new ways to genetically modify crops. Currently, GM crops are created by inserting genes from one species into another. However, this can be a difficult and time-consuming process. LGT could provide a simpler and more efficient way to modify crops.
Finally, the discovery of LGT in grasses could change the way we view and regulate GM crops. Some people have concerns about the safety of GM crops, but LGT shows that genetic modification is a natural process that has been occurring in plants for millions of years.
Overall, the discovery of LGT in grasses is an exciting development with the potential to improve crop yields and resilience, and to make GM crops more acceptable to consumers.
The discovery that grasses can borrow genes from their neighbors is a major breakthrough in our understanding of plant evolution. It has the potential to revolutionize the way we develop and grow crops.