Grasses take an evolutionary shortcut by borrowing genes from their neighbors

Grasses take an evolutionary shortcut by borrowing genes from their neighbors

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A new study reveals that grass may transfer genes from its neighbors in the same way that genetically modified crops are produced.

The research by the University of Sheffield is the first to show the frequency with which grasses incorporate DNA from other species into their genomes through a process known as lateral gene transfer.

Stolen genetic secrets give them an evolutionary advantage by allowing them to grow faster, bigger, or stronger and adapt to new environments faster.

It is important to understand the rate to know the potential impact it can have on a plant’s development and how it adapts to the environment.

Grasses are the most ecologically and economically important group of plants, covering 30% of the Earth’s surface and producing the majority of our food.

The Sheffield team sequenced multiple genomes of a species of tropical grass, and determined at different time points in its evolution the number of genes acquired, giving the rate of accumulation.

It is now believed that these transfers are likely to occur in the same way as some genetically modified crops.

These results were published in the journal New Botanist It could inform future work to harness the process to improve crop productivity and produce more resilient crops, and have implications for how we view and use controversial GM crops.

Dr Luke Dunning, a research fellow from the School of Biosciences at the University of Sheffield, and senior author of the paper, said: “There are many ways to produce GM crops, some of which require significant human intervention and others which do not. Some of these methods require minimal human intervention. They can occur naturally and facilitate the transfer processes we have observed in wild grasses.

“These methods work by contaminating the reproductive process with DNA from a third individual. Our current working hypothesis, and something we plan to test in the near future, is that these same methods are responsible for the gene transfers that we document in wild grasses.

“This means that in the near future, controversial gene editing may be viewed as a more natural process.

“Currently, these ‘natural’ reproductive contamination methods are not as effective in producing transgenic plants as those used routinely, but by increasing understanding of how lateral gene transfer occurs in the wild, we may be able to increase the success of this process.”

Since Darwin, much of our understanding of evolution has been based on the assumption that genetic information is passed from parents to offspring, the basis of common descent for plant and animal evolution.

The team’s next steps will be to verify their hypothesis by recreating known examples of lateral gene transfer, to investigate whether this ongoing process contributes to the differences we observe between crop varieties.

more information:
Pauline Raymundo et al., lateral gene transfer generates accessory genes that accumulate at different rates within the grass lineage, New Botanist (2023). doi: 10.1111/nph.19272.…ll/10.1111/nph.19272

Magazine information:
New Botanist

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