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University of Bayreuth, Press Release No. 051/2024 – 03.05.2024

Largest family tree of flowering plants created

A large international research team including a scientist from the University of Bayreuth has created the most comprehensive family tree of flowering plants to date. This family tree is based on 15 times more data than all previous ones and also includes extinct and endangered species.

What for?

A family tree of flowering plant species that is as complete as possible offers enormous potential for research of biological diversity. Comprehensive knowledge of relationships allows predictions to be made about which plant species contain molecules with medicinal potential or how certain plants are affected by pests, diseases and climate change.

An international team of 279 researchers from 138 organizations in 27 countries has created the largest family tree of flowering plants to date. Plant systematist Prof. Dr. Sigrid Liede-Schumann from the University of Bayreuth was also involved in the publication, which recently appeared in NATURE.

The family tree that has now been created covers around 60 % of the known flowering plant genera. It is based on a gigantic amount of data that would take a single computer 18 years to process. Researchers from all over the world contributed plant material, which was examined for its DNA and sorted according to its genetic ancestry. In total, the researchers examined over 9,500 species of flowering plants, of which more than 500 species are threatened with extinction. Liede-Schumann provided around 60 samples from the dogbane family (Apocynaceae), of which the oleander is one of the best-known representatives. "There are 464 families of flowering plants, and this summary analysis was only possible because many specialists shared their material and expertise with the team at Kew," says Liede-Schumann.

New techniques were developed for the study to magnetically capture hundreds of genes and hundreds of thousands of letters of genetic code from each sample. The special feature of this approach is that many species from all flowering plant groups could be examined. The team even analyzed samples with severely damaged DNA, including plants that were already extinct and whose samples came from centuries-old herbarium specimens.

Oldest genetically examined specimen: Nepalese sandwort (Arenaria globiflora). Herbarium specimen from Kew, collected in the Himalayas in 1829.

The family tree helps to trace the explosive development and current dominance of flowering plants, which even surprised Charles Darwin. Flowering plants emerged more than 140 million years ago and rapidly displaced other plant groups, so that over 80 % of the main lineages living today already existed shortly afterwards. Around 40 million years ago, there was a further surge in species development, which coincided with a global drop in temperature. With these findings, the researchers can continue to work on the question of how and why species split up.

The project is part of the Tree of Life Initiative of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, England, which aims to develop a family tree of all 330,000 known flowering plant species. The family tree and the data on which it is based are freely available (open access).

Source: Phylogenomics and the rise of the angiosperms. Alexandre R. Zuntini et al. Nature (2024)

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-024-07324-0

Prof. Dr. Liede-Schumann

Prof. Dr. Sigrid Liede-Schumann

Plant Systematics
University of Bayreuth

Phone: +49 (0)921 / 55-2460
E-mail: sigrid.liede@uni-bayreuth.de 

Theresa Hübner

Theresa HübnerDeputy Press & PR Manager

Phone: +49 (0) 921 / 55 - 5357
E-Mail: theresa.huebner@uni-bayreuth.de