Skip to main content

Researchers unravel the time of origin of flowering plants

Flowering plants likely originated between 149 and 256 million years ago according to new research involving Queen Mary University of London, and led by University College London (UCL).

Published on:

The study, published in New Phytologist by researchers from the UK and China, shows that flowering plants are neither as old as suggested by previous molecular studies, nor as young as a literal interpretation of their fossil record.

The researchers compiled a large collection of genetic data for many flowering plant groups including a dataset of 83 genes from 644 taxa, together with a comprehensive set of fossil evidence to address the timescale of flowering plant diversification.

Dr Mario dos Reis, from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, worked with lead author, Dr Jose Barba-Montoya from UCL’s Department of Genetics, Evolution & Environment, in using Bayesian statistics to work out the pattern of ticking of the molecular clock in flowering plants and estimate the age of origin of this group of plants.

“By using Bayesian statistical methods that borrow tools from financial 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 an early to mid-Cretaceous origin for the group,” said Dr dos Reis. “These results indicate that flowering plants are perhaps noticeably older than their fossil record suggest, but not as old as suggested by some previous molecular-clock analyses.”

Complementary studies

The findings underline the power of using complementary studies based on molecular data and the fossil record, along with different approaches to infer evolutionary timescales to establish a deeper understanding of evolutionary dynamics many millions of years ago.

“The discrepancy between estimates of flowering plant evolution from molecular data and fossil records has caused much debate. Even Darwin described the origin of this group as an ‘abominable mystery’,” explained lead author, Dr Barba-Montoya.  “To uncover the key to solving the mystery of when flowers originated, we carefully analysed the genetic make-up of flowering plants, and the rate at which mutations accumulate in their genomes,” he added.

Through the lens of the fossil record, flowering plants appear to have diversified suddenly, precipitating a Cretaceous Terrestrial Revolution in which pollinators, herbivores and predators underwent explosive co-evolution.

Molecular-clock dating studies, however, have suggested a much older origin for flowering plants, implying a cryptic evolution of flowers that is not documented in the fossil record.

“In large part, the discrepancy between these two approaches is an artefact of false precision on both palaeontological and molecular evolutionary timescales,” said Professor Philip Donoghue from the University of Bristol's School of Earth Science, and a senior author of the study.

Differing timescales

Palaeontological timescales calibrate the family tree of plants to geological time based on the oldest fossil evidence for its component branches. Molecular timescales build on this approach, using additional evidence from genomes for the genetic distances between species, aiming to overcome gaps in the fossil record.

“Previous studies into molecular timescales failed to explore the implications of experimental variables and so they inaccurately estimate the probable age of flowering plants with undue precision,” said Professor Ziheng Yang, also from UCL’s Department of Genetics, Evolution & Environment and senior author of the study.

“Similarly, interpretations of the fossil record have not fully recognised its shortcomings as an archive of evolutionary history, that is, that the oldest fossil evidence of flowering plants comes from very advanced, not primitive flowering plant lineages,” Professor Donoghue added.

The team involved researchers from UCL, Queen Mary University of London, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Natural History Museum and the University of Bristol.

The study was funded by the Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council (UK), the Natural Environment Research Council, the Royal Society and the Wolfson Foundation.

More information:

  • Research paper: 'Constraining uncertainty in the timescale of angiosperm evolution and the veracity of a Cretaceous Terrestrial Revolution'. Barba-Montoya, J; dos Reis, M; Schneider, H; Donoghue, PCJ; Yang, Z. 2018. New Phytologist.

  • Find out more about Queen Mary's Biology BSc

For media information, contact:

Rupert Marquand
Media Relations Manager