BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The University at Buffalo is a key partner in a
$7.3 million, multi-institution collaboration to explore the
origins of all flowers by sequencing the genome of Amborella, a
unique species that one researcher has nicknamed the "platypus of
Amborella is an understory shrub or small tree found in only one
place on the planet: the Pacific islands of New Caledonia. The
plant, a direct descendant of the common ancestor of all flowering
plants, is the single known living species on the earliest branch
of the genetic tree of life of flowering plants.
As such, Amborella is a molecular living fossil, said Victor
Albert, UB Empire Innovation Professor in biological sciences and a
co-principal investigator on the Amborella genome project.
View a video interview with Albert here.
In the same way that the DNA of the platypus, a mammal of
ancient lineage, can help us study the evolution of all mammals,
the DNA of Amborella can help us learn about the evolution of all
flowers, Albert said.
Specifically, by comparing the genetic make-up of Amborella to
that of newer species, biologists will be able to study a diverse
range of plant characteristics, from how flowers resist drought and
how fruits mature to how critical crops might respond to global
"This is work that's related to the human condition in various
ways. We're talking about food, fiber, fuel and the future," said
Albert, a faculty member in UB's New York State Center of
Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences. "Most of our food
comes from flowers. All the fruit crops and grains are flowering
plants. Cotton fiber is from fruit, and fruits come from flowers.
Soybeans are fruits. Rice comes from the seed of a flowering
Albert's co-investigators include Claude W. dePamphilis at
Pennsylvania State University, who is leading the research; Hong Ma
and Stephan Schuster at Penn State; Douglas E. Soltis, Pamela S.
Soltis and W. Brad Barbazuk at the University of Florida; Steven D.
Rounsley at the University of Arizona; James Leebens-Mack at the
University of Georgia; Jeffrey Palmer at Indiana University; and
Susan Wessler at the University of California, Riverside. The
National Science Foundation is funding the project.
The team plans to complete and publish a draft sequence of the
Amborella genome this year, Albert said. To share results with
scientists around the world, the group will make the genome
"The Amborella genome and the strategies we are using to obtain
and analyze the genome will provide not only a unique scientific
resource with broad impacts on plant biology, but it also will
provide excellent opportunities to demonstrate the utility of an
evolutionary perspective across the biological sciences," said
Albert, who is also a member of teams sequencing the genomes of
coffee and avocado.
The Amborella project builds on another floral genetics project
that dePamphilis of Penn State led. In that earlier study, he and
partners including Albert sought information on the origins of
flowers by comparing active genes of flowering plants including
Amborella and non-flowering plants called gymnosperms.
The team published major findings in the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences in December, reporting that genetic
programming found in gymnosperm cones gave rise to flowering
The Amborella genome project is the natural next step: Now that
we know more about how the first flowers evolved, what can we learn
about how they diversified? With a fossil record dating to just
over 130 million years ago, flowering plants now include as many as
400,000 species on land and in water.
Sequencing a genome involves determining the order in which
nucleotide bases -- adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine --
appear in strands of DNA.
To complete this task, the Amborella team is employing "shotgun"
technology that breaks DNA into tiny bits, sequences those bits
simultaneously and reassembles them into a long chain. The approach
is cheaper and quicker than older methods that require scientists
to sequence entire strands of DNA in order, beginning at one end
and moving to the other.
At UB, Albert and fellow researchers will use visual mapping to
check their colleagues' work, examining large pieces of sequenced
DNA under a microscope to make sure those pieces fit correctly on
Amborella chromosomes. (Though scientists do not know the exact
sequence of the Amborella genome, they do already know how large
chunks of DNA map to one another.)
UB researchers will also compare Amborella's genetic material to
that of other plants, including rice, the cucumber, the tomato and
The goal of these comparative studies is to learn more about
whole-genome duplication, a commonplace process in flowers in which
a new plant inherits an extra, duplicate copy of its parents' DNA.
Because redundant copies of genes can evolve to develop new
functions, scientists think that whole-genome duplication may be
behind "Darwin's abominable mystery" -- the abrupt proliferation of
new varieties of flowering plants in fossil records dating to the
Amborella has relatively few chromosomes, leading biologists
including Albert to conclude that the species may never have
undergone such a doubling.
Besides research, the Amborella genome project also includes
plans for creating education, training and mentoring opportunities
for high school students, undergraduates, graduate students and
The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public
university, a flagship institution in the State University of New
York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's
more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through
more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree
programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of
the Association of American Universities.