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When did flowers originate? A new study produced a more accurate estimate than was available before

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Posted February 7, 2018

When you are outside, enjoying the nature, you love smelling the flowers. We plant them, we adore them we give them as presents. But where did they come from? How old are flowers on this Earth? A new research, led by UCL, determined that flowers originated between 149 and 256 million years ago.

Flowers are not as old as molecular-clock analysis shows, but older than fossil records could reveal. Image credit: fir0002,flagstaffotos.com.au via Wikimedia

You may think that this question is not that hard. We typically determine the age of the species by analysing fossil records. They give us guidelines to make predictions and quite accurate estimates of the course of evolution. However, even Darwin himself thought flowers are a bit of mystery in this regard. Numerous studies have proposed different times from which flowers might have originated. Some estimates were based on molecular analysis and others – on literal interpretation of their fossil record. The first method produced estimates that might be too old, and the later argued that flowers are not as old as they are, according to this new study, conducted by Chinese and British scientists.

The team used genetic analysis to estimate how quickly mutations accumulate. Molecular-clock and fossil record analysis both produce inaccurate results because these are simply inaccurate methods. Furthermore, they fail to recognize their shortcomings. For example, the oldest fossil records of flowers do not come from the oldest examples – they are already quite advanced. Meantime, the molecular-clock analysis fails to see the numerous variables in the experiments. However, these methods do produce some estimates that can guide other, more precise techniques. Now scientists compiled a large dataset of 83 genes from 644 taxa, together with a comprehensive set of fossil evidence.

This method is not entirely new and unique, but it does produce more accurate results. Dr Mario dos Reis, co-author of the study, explained: “By using Bayesian statistical methods that borrow tools from physics and mathematics to model how the evolutionary rate changes with time, we showed that there are broad uncertainties in the estimates of flowering plant age, all compatible with early to mid-Cretaceous origin for the group”. And so the new estimate is that flowers originated between 149 and 256 million years ago.

That is quite a broad range, but it is a workable piece of information. Hopefully, new scientific advancements will lead to better, even more accurate results in the future.

 

Source: UCL

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