Have you ever heard the saying “beauty lies within?” Given that this aphorism typically describes an individual’s personality, we often do not think of a flower as having inner beauty. In fact, flowers employ their outer beauty as a tool during reproduction; so a flower’s “hidden beauty” would not truly matter, right?
For an endangered orchid, native to Western Australia, the term “outer beauty” has little to no significance. This orchid, Rhizanthella gardneri, chooses to conceal its vanity, as the flower lives its entire life underground.
In 2010, scientists from the University of Western Australia discovered that this remarkable orchid obtains nutrients by parasitizing fungi from a common shrub of the outback, a broom bush. However, considering the plant’s status on the endangered plant species list, scientists have recently initiated an examination of the orchid’s genome.
Led by Dr. Etienne Delanny of the ARC Center for Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, the team of scientists discovered that even though the orchid has no photosynthesizing capabilities, the plant still retains the powerhouses for photosynthesis – chloroplasts.
Because the flower resides completely underground, scientists had a somewhat difficult time locating specimens for the experiment; but once sited, the scientists determined that the orchid has the smallest known plant chloroplast genome. While the chloroplast genome of most plants codes for photosynthesis functions, the 37-gene chloroplast genome of R. gardneri codes for something entirely different. This orchid’s chloroplast genome actually functions to make four proteins that are essential for the flower’s survival. Other than the plant’s small chloroplast genome, everything else not required for the orchid’s parasitic lifestyle have disappeared.
Ultimately, this scientific discovery will allow for a better understanding of gene loss in other parasites such as the Plasmodium parasite that causes malaria. Thus, in the case of this endangered orchid, true beauty lies within its genome.
Discussion Question: What evolutionary mechanisms might have influenced this peculiar orchid species to carry out its life cycle underground?
News Article: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/02/110208101337.htm
Scientific Abstract: http://mbe.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2011/02/02/molbev.msr028.full.pdf+html
Photo courtesy: www.osfimages.com
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