How Did Plants Move to Land? Chicago Botanic Garden Scientist Helps Lead Global Effort to Trace Pivotal Events in Evolution

Evolutionary biologists from around the world are working together to reconstruct the origin of land plants and increase our understanding of how all plant life on earth is connected.

Adriana Reyneri
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Event Date: 
Release Date: 
Tuesday, October 28, 2014

GLENCOE, IL (October 28, 2014)– Norman Wickett, Ph.D., a conservation scientist at the Chicago Botanic Garden, is co-leading an international team of researchers in an unprecedented effort to reveal details about the origin and evolution of land plants. The team’s findings are scheduled for publication this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. More than 40 researchers on four continents are collaborating on the analysis, the largest applied to this problem to date. They’ve analyzed 852 genes from 103 types of land plants to better illustrate the land plant tree of life. Remarkably, this research came together through the broadly cooperative and collaborative efforts of multiple groups of scientists as part of the One Thousand Plants (1KP) initiative.

“This project is something that many scientists in the community of plant evolutionary biology have been really excited about,” says Wickett, a specialist in plant genetics and bioinformatics, the science of collecting and analyzing complex biological data. “In addition to the significant resources provided by the National Science Foundation, BGI-Shenzhen, and others, many scientists in the community have gone out of their way to provide or prepare samples and to interpret results. We all recognize that it is important to understand the establishment of plants on land, how the genetic tool kit of all land plant life evolved.”    

The team’s study sheds light on the timing of factors that led to the diversification of plants, such as the mechanisms that enabled plants to adapt to a drier environment. Scientists from North America, Europe, Asia and Australia harnessed emerging technologies to generate and analyze a vast number of DNA sequences to uncover the evolution of plant life on earth. How did plants develop vascular tissue to more efficiently acquire water and nutrients? When and how did plants acquire characteristics that laid the foundation for the development of seeds, flowers, woody tissue, etc.?

“The study was like taking a time machine back to get a glimpse of how ancient algae transitioned into the diverse array of plants we depend on for our food, building materials and critical ecological services,” said Wickett, lead author of the study.

The team is illuminating the complex processes that allowed ancient water-faring algae to evolve the structures necessary for vegetation to take root and colonize the land. As plants grew and thrived across the plains, valleys and mountains of earth’s landscape, rapid changes in their structures gave rise to a myriad of new species; the group’s data also helps scientists better understand the ancestry of more recent plant lineages, including flowering plants and non-flowering cone-bearing plants such a pine trees.

The investigation has also revealed a number of previously unknown molecular characteristics of some plant species that may have applications in medicine and industry.

“We are using this diverse set of sequences to make many exciting discoveries with implications across the life sciences,” said Gane Ka-Shu Wong, principal investigator for 1KP, professor at the University of Alberta and associate director of BGI-Shenzhen. “For example, new algal proteins identified in our sequence data are being used to investigate how the mammalian brain works.”

“Seeing the impact that 1KP has had inspired us to launch a series of 1,000-species projects for organisms like insects, birds and fish,” said Yong Zhang, director of the China National GeneBank (CNGB).

To store and analyze the massive libraries of genetic data generated for this study, an extraordinary level of computing power was provided by the iPlant Collaborative at the University of Arizona, the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), Compute-Calcul Canada and China National GeneBank (CNGB). “This study demonstrates how life scientists are using high-performance computing resources to analyze astronomically large data sets to answer fundamental questions that were previously thought to be intractable,” said iPlant’s Naim Matasci.  Many organizations, including iPlant, CNGB and the Computational Analysis of Novel Drug Opportunities (CANDO) group at the State University of New York, Buffalo, have joined forces to provide web-based open-access to these results. The resources and sequence repositories are described in a companion paper published in the journal GigaScience.

Ultimately the researchers hope that their project will not only shed new light on the origins and development of plant life, but also provide researchers with a new framework for the study of evolution.

“We hope that this study will help settle some longstanding scientific debates concerning plant relationships, and others will use our data to further elucidate the molecular evolution of plant genes and genomes,” said Jim Leebens-Mack, associate professor of plant biology at the University of Georgia and corresponding author of the paper.

For a full version of the paper and to see all institutions involved in the research, see


Editors, please note: For digital images, contact Julie McCaffrey at (847) 835-8213 or at

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