Among flowering plants, the rose family (called Rosaceae) displays an incredible diversity, including classic reds like the American beauty. But in addition to ornamentals making the perfect romantic gift, the Rosaceae family also includes vital staples of worldwide diets and cash crop economies. They exhibit an extraordinary range of variation in the size and shapes of trees, bushes, and succulent fruits, from strawberries and raspberries, to Jonathan apples, plums, cherries, and almonds, to mouth-watering Georgia peaches. For evolutionary biologists, Rosaceae provides an excellent opportunity to understand how fruit evolved from ancestral types to the present day dry or fleshy varieties that, with the help of animals, have spread to a worldwide distribution of about 3,000 known species. In a new international collaboration among Chinese and U.S. institutions, including Fudan University, Huanggang Normal College, the Pennsylvania State University, and the Smithsonian Institution, led by Professors Hong Ma and Jun Xiang, the authors performed a tour de force evolutionary study of Rosaceae fruits from the analyses of 125 flowering plants with large gene sequence datasets, including those of 117 Rosaceae species. The results, published online recently in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution, have shown a new evolutionary picture of Rosaceae plant size and shape, flowers, and, importantly, fruits. First, a new tree of life for Rosaceae was constructed using newly obtained nuclear gene sequences to investigate the evolution of fruit types and other characters in the context of geological times. The scientists also found strong evidence of whole genome duplication that likely generated new genes contributing to Rosaceae diversity.
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