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What’s the story Morning Glory? Taxonomy, evolution and sweet potatoes

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Scientists at the University of Oxford reveal that the sweet potato and its storage root originated at least 2 million years ago — that is, not only before agriculture but also long before modern humans appeared on Earth.

The scientists’ research indicates that the storage root was an already-existing trait that predisposed the plant for cultivation and not solely the result of human domestication, as previously thought. This discovery, published in Nature Plants, is part of a comprehensive monographic study of the morning glories, the biggest study of this group of plants to date, which also contributes important insights to the taxonomy and evolution of this megadiverse group of plants.

The researchers also discovered that sweet potato is not the only species of morning glory that produces storage roots. In fact at least 62 other species in the group also produce these underground organs, some of them as big as those of the sweet potato and many also edible.

Dr Pablo Muñoz, from Oxford‘s Department of Plant Sciences, whose PhD thesis formed a significant part of the paper, said: ‘Most other studies trying to understand the evolution of the sweet potato assumed that its storage root is a product of domestication by humans whereas this study demonstrates that storage roots evolved many times independently in different species including sweet potato before humans.’

The plant genus Ipomoea, commonly known as morning glories, is one of the largest groups of flowering plants in the world. It includes over 800 species, including many ornamental plants and one of the most important crops for human consumption: the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas). However, despite their importance and widespread distribution, most species of morning glories are very poorly known and have never been studied across their entire geographical range, hindering the understanding of this important group of plants.

Researchers at the University of Oxford’s Department of Plant Sciences have led the first comprehensive monographic study of the morning glories at a global scale. It is a long-term collaboration with colleagues at the International Potato Center, in Peru, Oregon State and Duke Universities in the US and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Their results include the description of 63 new species (almost 10% of the species known in the whole genus) and the identification of a large number of synonyms — entities described in different places under different names that are, in reality, the same species.

Their methods could offer a solution to the massive backlog in documenting and describing the bulk of the world’s plant species.

The scientists demonstrate how a monographic taxonomic study, carried out at a global scale, can make massive contributions to our understanding of the diversity existing in poorly known groups of organisms. By working out the evolution of the morning glories, they were also able to investigate several questions pertaining to the origin and evolution of the sweet potato.

The research uses herbarium specimens — dried plants preserved in botanical gardens, museums and other institutions — for both morphological comparative studies and molecular analyses. Herbarium specimens constitute an unparalleled resource with which to address the study of inadequately known groups of plants and is the only feasible way to study megadiverse tropical groups across their entire distribution.

Lead author, Professor Robert Scotland, said: ‘We hope this study acts as a catalyst in demonstrating the scale of progress that can be achieved. Taxonomy has often been perceived as a merely descriptive science, a continuation of the work carried out by 18th and 19th century naturalists and no longer necessary.

‘However, we believe that an accurate, up-to-date taxonomy is necessary to tackle the biodiversity crisis. A large percentage of tropical plant species are so poorly known that, in practice, they are invisible to conservation studies. Taxonomy is the science that underpins biology and provides our basic knowledge of what species there are and where they live. Our study demonstrates the potential of taxonomy, through the integration of morphological studies and molecular analyses, to contribute to understanding much of the plant diversity existing on Earth.’

Professor Robert Scotland said

Read the paper: Nature Plants

Article source: University of Oxford

Image credit: Chang Min SHIN / Pixabay

Harvesting Genes to Improve Watermelons

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When many people think of watermelon, they likely think of Citrullus lanatus, the cultivated watermelon with sweet, juicy red fruit enjoyed around the world as a dessert. Indeed, watermelon is one of the world’s most popular fruits, second only to tomato – which many consider a vegetable. But there are six other wild species of watermelon, all of which have pale, hard and bitter fruits.

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To avoid cassava disease, Tanzanian farmers can plant certain varieties in certain seasons

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A nutty-flavored, starchy root vegetable, cassava (also known as yuca) is one of the most drought-resistant crops and is a major source of calories and carbs for people in developing countries, serving as the primary food for more than 800 million people. However, the crop is vulnerable to virus diseases, such as cassava brown streak disease (CBSD), which poses the biggest threat to production in East and Central Africa. To understand how cassava virus disease builds up over repeated planting cycles, a team of Tanzania-based scientists conducted experiments in coastal Tanzania, where there are two planting seasons.

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Research team wants to eliminate dangerous plant diseases in rice

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Rice is the No. 1 staple food for the world’s poorest and most undernourished people. More than half of the world’s population eats rice every day. In sub-Saharan Africa, rice is the fastest-growing food source, providing more food calories than any other crop. One dangerous threat to food security is the rice disease bacterial blight, caused by the bacterium Xanthomonas oryzae pv. oryzae (Xoo). The annual losses caused by bacterial blight are estimated at U.S. $3.6 billion in India alone. Xoo can destroy a smallholder’s entire annual harvest, putting their food supply, income and land ownership at risk.

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Photosynthesis olympics: can the best wheat varieties be even better?

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Scientists have put elite wheat varieties through a sort of “Photosynthesis Olympics” to find which varieties have the best performing photosynthesis. This could ultimately help grain growers to get more yield for less inputs in the farm.

“In this study we surveyed diverse high-performing wheat varieties to see if their differences in photosynthetic performance were due to their genetic makeup or to the different environments where they were grown,” said lead researcher Dr Viridiana Silva-Perez from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis (CoETP).

The scientists found that the best performing varieties were more than 30 percent better than the worst performing ones and up to 90 percent of the differences were due to their genes and not to the environment they grew in.

“We focused on traits related to photosynthesis and found that some traits behaved similarly in different environments. This is useful for breeders, because it is evidence of the huge potential that photosynthesis improvement could have on yield, a potential that hasn’t been exploited until now,” says Dr Silva-Perez.

During the study, published recently in the Journal of Experimental Botany, the scientists worked in Australia and Mexico, taking painstaking measurements in the field and inside glasshouses.

“The results that we obtained from our “Photosynthesis Olympics”, as we like to call them, are very exciting because we have demonstrated that there is scope to make plants more efficient, even for varieties working in the best conditions possible, such as with limited water and fertiliser restrictions. This means for example, that breeders have the potential to get more yield from a plant with the same amount of nitrogen applied,” says CoETP Director Professor Robert Furbank, one of the authors of this study.

Photosynthesis – the process by which plants convert sunlight, water and CO2 into organic matter – is a very complex process involving traits at different levels, from the molecular level, such as content of the main photosynthetic enzyme Rubisco, to the leaf, such as nitrogen content in the leaf and then to the whole canopy.

“This work is an important result for the CoETP, which aims to improve the process of photosynthesis to increase the production of major food crops such as wheat, rice and sorghum. There is a huge amount of collaboration, both institutional and interdisciplinary, that needs to take place to achieve this type of research. Without the invaluable cooperation between statisticians, plant breeders, molecular scientists and plant physiologists, we would have never achieved these results,” says co-author Tony Condon from CSIRO and the CoETP.

Read the paper: Journal of Experimental Botany

Article source: Arc Centre Of Excellence For Translational Photosynthesis

Author: Natalia Bateman

Image credit: Dr Viridiana Silva-Perez/COETP