Biology

Grasses found to cheat evolution by stealing genes from their neighbors

Grasses found to cheat evoluti...
Researchers have found that a species of grass known as Alloteropsis semialata can steal genes from its neighbors to give it an evolutionary advantage
Researchers have found that a species of grass known as Alloteropsis semialata can steal genes from its neighbors to give it an evolutionary advantage
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Researchers have found that a species of grass known as Alloteropsis semialata can steal genes from its neighbors to give it an evolutionary advantage
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Researchers have found that a species of grass known as Alloteropsis semialata can steal genes from its neighbors to give it an evolutionary advantage

Who among us didn't cheat on a test at school by copying off kids nearby? Well it turns out that grasses are doing the same thing on an evolutionary level. Scientists have found evidence that some species of grasses are stealing genes from their neighbors to help them adapt, effectively bypassing millions of years' worth of evolution.

Traditionally, gene transfer happens "vertically," passed down from parents to their offspring. But some organisms can transfer genes horizontally or laterally. Most notoriously, bacteria use the cheeky technique to quickly develop resistance to antibiotics and share it around.

Now researchers at the University of Sheffield have found that, surprisingly, some grasses are also running a "counterfeit genes" ring. The discovery was made by studying the genome of Alloteropsis semialata grass, and comparing it to the genomes of 150 other grass species. The similarity of certain DNA sequences showed that they had been acquired laterally from their natural neighbors.

"Grasses are simply stealing genes and taking an evolutionary shortcut," says Luke Dunning, an author of the study. "They are acting as a sponge, absorbing useful genetic information from their neighbors to out compete their relatives and survive in hostile habitats without putting in the millions of years it usually takes to evolve these adaptations."

Interestingly enough, the study also showed that Alloteropsis semialata wasn't the only kind of grass using the trick. On the surface it might seem like a good thing: it helps grass thrive, and we need grass – especially considering that broad name includes foods like wheat, maize, rice and sugar cane.

But there could be a darker side to a bit of sneaky gene stealing. The researchers point out that natural grasses could copy certain genes from genetically-modified (GM) crops, allowing these lab-made additions to "escape" into the wild. While scientists currently take plenty of precautions to prevent losing control of GM organisms, this could undo that hard work and potentially wreak havoc on ecosystems.

"This research may make us as a society reconsider how we view GM technology as grasses have naturally exploited a similar process," says Dunning. "Eventually, this research may also help us to understand how genes can escape from GM crops to wild species or other non-GM crops, and provide solutions to reduce the likelihood of this happening. The next step is to understand the biological mechanism behind this phenomenon and we will carry out further studies to answer this."

The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Source: University of Sheffield

4 comments
piperTom
Cheating? Trickery? Of course, all (ALL!) the macroscopic creatures on Earth "stole" metabolic factories, now called mitochondria, from ancient parasites. This isn't cheating; this is how nature works.
Veronica Roach
I just need to know 'how' this writer thinks that would happen - isn't it true that insects are causing crossing to happen ? - this article makes it sound as tho 'demon' plants are secretly & deliberately landing their pollen on to other plants & causing hybrid plants...whereas bees & many other critters are doing a pretty good job of spreading it all over the place ! If the mixing of genetic material causes actual changes in plants as in hybrid mammals, then there is no mystery - we see that all the time !
Imran Sheikh
So if this grass stays close to humans, we can expect Baby Groot.
highlandboy
Many of us have known for some time speciation is not an accurate summary of the ability of individuals in a genus to cross breed producing fertile offspring. In Australia we even have parrots on the east coast that if you take one from the south and breed it with one from the north the offspring are infertile (by definition they are seperate species). But if you take examples every 500km and breed them they produce fertile offspring. The concept of a species is therefore faulty. Maybe we need a wider category to define similar creatures. Or better yet it is time to throw away the categories based on observations of similarities and begin again with definitions based on DNA, the code that defines the organism.