Scientists finally understand how pitcher plants developed the taste for flesh

The research team of scientists from Japan, China, and the U.S. found that although each of the species developed their appetite for insects independent of each other, all three ended up using remarkably similar methods to feed themselves.

Scientists have for the first time sequenced the genome of a carnivorous plant known as the Australian pitcher plant - or Cephalotus follicularis.

A new study examining the evolution of flesh-eating plants has found striking similarities in different species despite the fact that they live continents apart. This is likely because the enzymes used to break down food all perform similar jobs in regards to catching prey. What did it take for carnivorous plants such as the pitcher plant to evolve the ability to derive some of their nutrients from flesh?

Carnivorous plants grow in very nutrient-poor habitats and produce carbon through the usual photosynthetic processes, just like other plants.

As it was said before, the explanation for the evolution has been a topic for many studies through the years, as scientists have wondered how is it possible that a plant developed this unique lifestyle. They also looked at digestive juices in another carnivorous plant, a sundew, which has leaves with sticky little hairs that trap insects like flypaper.

Australian pitcher plants evolved to include carnivorous pitcher leaves and non-carnivorous flat leaves and that feature allowed the scientists to analyze the genetic basis for carnivory by comparing the two types of leaves. The Australian pitcher plant is more closely related to starfruit than the other pitcher plants, the Asian pitcher plant is more closely related to buckwheat, and the American pitcher plant is more closely related to kiwis. It's a classic case of convergent evolution, which describes how unrelated organisms develop similar adaptations to their respective environments.

"These plants have a genetic tool kit, and they're trying to come up with an answer to the problem of how to become carnivorous", one of the authors, University at Buffalo biologist Victor A. Albert, explained.

"In order to be a pitcher plant, you need to trap liquid and attract insects, have them fall in and not let them get out, and secrete enzymes that will do the prey digestion for you". "And in the end, they all come up with the same solution", Dr Albert said.

The team of scientists sequenced and analyzed the nuclear genome of the Australian pitcher plant, which drowns its prey in an inescapable Value-Added Tax of digestive juices.

Therefore, it seems there aren't many paths available for plants to become meat-eaters.

Their convergent biology explains why the original proponent of natural selection, Charles Darwin, shared Dr. Fukushima's fascination with carnivorous plants.

"Even more exciting was that within some of these enzyme families ... changes in the amino acid sequences of the proteins also occurred convergently". The title of the paper is "Genome of the pitcher plant Cephalotus reveals genetic changes associated with carnivory".

"According to the results, leaves that catch insects have gained new enzymatic functions: basic chitinase, which breaks down chitin (main component of insects' exoskeleton), and purple acid phosphatase which releases phosphate groups from molecules, and it contributes to the mobilization of the prey's phosphate", says professor Julio Rozas, who leads the Evolutionary Genomics and Bioinformatics research group at the University of Barcelona.

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