There are more than 300,000 flowering plant species that cover the earth today. They are all unique in their own right, with species that have flowers as large as three feet, and some that span only a few millimeters. In all their beauty and variety, there is a deep mystery to flowers that over generations scientists have tried to solve; the mystery of their origin.
It was Charles Darwin who was perplexed by this same secret 137 years ago. He called it an”abominable mystery”because he couldn’t describe with his theory of evolution how flowers seemingly suddenly swept the earth hundreds of millions of years ago. To put this in perspective, about 201million years ago there were no flowers. We have evidence of this because there are no fossils of flowering plants before then; however, if we date back to about 200 million years ago we suddenly have loads of fossils of flowering plants. This suggests that flowering species could have developed “suddenly” where as Darwin’s theory of evolution describes species evolving very gradually over time through natural selection. It’s almost as if flowers just decided to show up one day and explode in population around the world. This was a huge flaw to Darwin’s theory and scientists have been trying to figure out a rational explanation for it ever since. Then, in December 2013, at the labs in Penn State University, the answer came in the form of a small flowering shrub located in the islands of New Caledoniacalled the Amborella. This plant turns out to be the only survivor of a prehistoric lineage of plants that can trace us back to the last common ancestor of all flowering plants. Through mapping out the genome of the Amborello, scientists discovered conclusive evidence that the first flowering plants developed after a “genome-doubling event”. Genome doubling happens when cells of a certain organism (in this case the ancestor of all flowers) obtain a whole copy of their own genome while duplicating. Because of this, certain duplicated genes took on different roles within the plant over time and eventually developed into the genes for flowers ! Genome doubling therefore offers an explanation and answer to Darwin’s “Abominable Mystery”, allowing an accelerated evolution of flowering plants that abruptly showed up in history and have shaped the world as we know it since.