Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Evolution of drought tolerance

Phylogenetic tree of 165 grasses. Size is bubble is proportional to physiological drought tolerance (big bubble = lower psi-crit).

We know a bit about the ancestor of Poaceae. All the main defining characters of grasses like the parallel venation, the monocotyledon, and the distinctive grass flowers, were present in the ancestral grass. What did the first grassland look like? What about it's ecology? Did grasses start in the shade and come out in the open? Were they from wet soils and evolved to inhabit the dry? 

We don't have a time machine, but we do have the ability to assemble the phylogentic relationships among grasses and infer origins. Steve Kembel helped out and took Erika Edwards phylogeny from her PNAS paper and arrayed physiological drought tolerance data from 165 species from our experiment that matched with her phylogeny.

The first thing that pops out is there is no phylogenetic signal to the data. Drought tolerance pops up throughout the phylogeny. If true--and our dataset is by no means definitive yet--then drought tolerance might be evolutionary labile. It might not take that many mutations to confer physiological drought tolerance.

But what about the ancestral trait? Was the mother of all grasses physiologically drought tolerant? That specific analysis has yet to be run, but likely not. Most of the modern grasses are not terribly drought tolerant and the most parsimonious explanation for that--as I understand it--is that it is more likely that the relatively small fraction of grasses that are super-drought tolerant hold the derived trait.

As they say, watch this space. We're going to try to prove ourselves wrong in the meantime.

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