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Scientists solve Darwin’s ‘abominable mystery’

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In another blow to those who deny evolution, a team of scientists has decoded the DNA of the Amborella, the closest living descendant of the Earth’s first flowering plants.

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According to the study:

“Amborella trichopoda, an understory shrub that only grows in New Caledonia, is the sole surviving sister species of all other living flowering plants (angiosperms).”

The Amborella is a rare plant that only grows in 18 places in New Caledonia, an isolated island chain in the South Pacific.

The study, The Amborella Genome and the Evolution of Flowering Plants, was published in the December 20, 2013 edition of Science Magazine.

The Amborella is unique because its reproductive organs are enclosed by tepals, a hybrid between petals and sepals, Amborella trichopoda is the only species in its genus, family and order, which makes it a very unique specimen to study.

The cream-colored Amborella flower is the only remaining link between the ancient plants that once covered the planet and the 300,000 species of flowers that currently cover the Earth. The study goes a long way to help scientists understand the evolutionary processes that led to the diversity of flowers worldwide.

During the Voyage of the Beagle (1831-1836), and during the many years of research afterwards, Charles Darwin was plagued by many seemingly unanswerable questions. One of those questions was why flowers suddenly proliferated on Earth millions of years ago.

In an 1879 letter to his friend and fellow naturalist, Joseph Hooker, Darwin referred to the origin of flowering plants as an “abominable mystery”.

Darwin found the answers to many of those seemingly unanswerable questions. He figured out how coral grows. He figured out why the finches are uniquely different on each of the islands in the Galapagos. He figured out how different species develop.

But he never solved the “abominable mystery.” Darwin never figured out why angiosperms produce complex seeds, wonderful floral scents, and incredibly beautiful flowers.

However, 176 years later, the scientists of the Amborella Genome Project have found the answer to Darwin’s “abominable mystery.”

The origin of flowers — the defining features of angiosperms — might be explained by a collection of genes that appeared when angiosperms split from gymnosperms…. About one-quarter of the genes involved in flowering lack obvious counterparts in the genomes of gymnosperms, whereas the other three-quarters existed in the common ancestor of both plant lineages.

By comparing the genome of the Amborella with the genome of other plants, the project’s scientists were able to determine that a genome doubling event occurred about 200 million years ago, which allowed plants to take on new functions, including flowering.

The project’s scientists believe that the genome doubling led to the diversification and spread of different species of flowers, because the duplicated genes helped the plants adapt to new environments and to survive new and different stress conditions that would have killed earlier plants without the duplicated genes.

The scientists of the project came from Penn State University, SUNY University at Buffalo, University of Florida – Gainesville, University of Georgia – Athens, University of California, Riverside, Indiana State University, University of Arizona, and Dow Agrosciences.

Because Amborella is the only species in its genus, family, and order, one of the researchers told the journal Nature, “It’s really the equivalent of the duck-billed platypus."

Another researcher, Victor Albert of the State University of New York at Buffalo said, “In the same way that the genome sequence of the platypus — a survivor of an ancient lineage — can help us study the evolution of all mammals, the genome sequence of Amborella can help us learn about the evolution of all flowers.”

It’s an interesting analogy, because Darwin first saw a live platypus on January 19, 1836, the same day that he first write down his doubts about the biblical version of Creation.

I took a stroll along a chain of ponds, which in this dry country represented the course of a river, and had the good fortune to see several of the famous Ornithorhynchus paradoxus. They were diving and playing about the surface of the water, but showed so little of their bodies, that they might easily have been mistaken for water-rats. Mr. Browne shot one: certainly it is a most extraordinary animal; a stuffed specimen does not at all give a good idea of the appearance of the head and beak when fresh; the latter becoming hard and contracted.

On that same day, Darwin had also observed how the Australian Lion Ant was so different from the European Lion Ant, even though, like the water rat and the platypus, they filled the exact same niche in the environment.

Earlier in the evening A little time before this, I had been lying on a sunny bank & was reflecting on the strange character of the Animals of this country as compared to the rest of the World.

An unbeliever in everything beyond his own reason, might exclaim "Surely two distinct Creators must have been [at] work; their object however has been the same & certainly the end in each case the end is complete".

Whilst thus thinking, I observed the conical pitfall of a Lion-Ant…Without doubt this predacious Larva belongs to the same genus, but to a different species from the European one.

Now what would the Disbeliever say to this? Would any two workmen ever hit on so beautiful, so simple & yet so artificial a contrivance? It cannot be thought so. The one hand has surely worked throughout the universe. A Geologist perhaps would suggest, that the periods of Creation have been distinct & remote the one from the other; that the Creator rested in his labor.

Like all the educated Creationists of his day, Darwin struggled to understand why the scientific data did not agree with the biblical account of creation. In Darwin’s day, educated Creationists had come up with two possible explanations: either there were two Creators or there were two distinct acts of Creation.

Both of those theories are heretical to those who believe in the absolute truth of the Bible, and why orthodox Christians didn’t attack them as heresy at the time is another ‘abominable mystery’. But the world of 1830’s was an entirely different place than the world we live in today.

Darwin ultimately rejected both of those solutions, and concluded that species evolve.

Unfortunately, some people seem to be stuck in the 1830’s and they are having a rough time of it right now. Last week it was the Texas State Board of Education ruling that it’s okay for biology textbooks to include lessons on evolution. This week it’s a Science article on the origin of flowers.

What’s next? Maybe someone named Magellan will sail around the world and prove that the Earth isn’t flat and doesn’t have Four Corners.

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