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UF Researchers Link Gene from Ancient Virus with Plant Stature

By Kim Scotto-Kelley

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A new study from the University of Florida links the ability of plants to grow to great heights to a 500-million-year-old interaction between a virus and a type of algae.

“The majority of today’s plant species and all major food crops are flower-producing plants. They show exceptional diversity in size and appearance, but until now, the genetic factor behind what determines their stature had remained largely unknown,” said Daniel Conde, a postdoc in the Forest Genomics Laboratory who coauthored the new study with Cíntia L. Ribeiro, a recent graduate of the UF/IFAS Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology program. The study was published in PNAS this week.

A previously uncharacterized gene, ENLARGED VESSEL ELEMENT (EVE), could be the key to plants reaching a larger size.

“Flowering plants have gradually evolved over time. Specialized cells determine how easily water travels through the plant, the rate of photosynthesis, and even the plant’s stature,” Conde said. “We found that in poplar trees, EVE contributes to the size of these cells, and can make these mechanisms run more efficiently.”

Matias Kirst, a professor in quantitative genetics in the UF/IFAS School of Forest Resources and Conservation, said one potential outcome of this discovery could be trees growing more quickly and/or being more productive. Kirst supervised Conde and is another co-author of the paper.

“What’s also fascinating about EVE is its origin,” Kirst explained. “It seems that EVE first appeared in plants around 500 million years ago, when a virus transferred parts of its DNA to a species of algae. When flowering plants started emerging around 125 million years ago, that gene evolved to play a role in vessels and how plants transport water. And now, that ancient interaction is what helps modern-day poplar and possibly other tree species to reach great heights.”

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The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS website at ifas.ufl.edu and follow us on social media.

(Photo courtesy of Matias Kirst, UF/IFAS)

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