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EvolutionEvolution

The World's Oldest Flower Could Harbor Life-Saving Secrets of Ancient Pollination

ByAllison EckNOVA NextNOVA Next

It looks like a cave painting—or better yet, felt-tip sketches on parchment paper.

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But it’s far from a manmade work of art. Scientists believe this 130-million-year-old aquatic specimen is the world’s first flower.

David Dilcher of Indiana University and his colleagues studied the plant by dissolving the surrounding limestone native to its central Spain habitat; then, they bleached fragments of the plant for examination under a microscope. They determined that

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Montsechia vidalii had no roots or petals, and that it grew several tiny flowers, each of which contained a single seed. Since animals in this Cretaceous period didn’t contribute to seed dispersal, the plant most likely thrived in shallow underwater environs, where it could spew seeds from both its male and female flowers directly into the water. The researchers published their results on August 17 in the journal PNAS.

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The discovery of a potential “first” is a big deal, but the scientists say that any prehistoric piece of plant lineage could help us learn more about the tree of life. For instance, researchers believe that around 1% of the human genome could have been transferred from plants, microorganisms, and fungi—so Montsechia vidalii could provide further insight into how Homo sapiens and other animals came to coexist with flowering plants. Here’s Helen Thomson, writing for The Guardian:

Sometime in the middle of the Cretaceous period the diversification of the flowering plant population exploded, developing into the beautiful blooms we know today, as well as influencing the wildlife that evolved alongside. Dilcher says that we wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t for plants like Montsechia vidalii . “We are a product of the many stages of evolution that went hand-in-hand with the evolution of flowering plants,” he says.

Moreover, if we understood plant evolution and how it began, we could encounter new pollination methods that will become increasingly necessary now as modern-day bee populations are dwindlingd. Alternative pollinators could be hidden in the recesses of time, waiting for us to take advantage of them.

Explore the tree of life and get a front row seat to what some have called the greatest show on Earth in NOVA’s Evolution Lab.

Photo credit: Gomez et. al. / PNAS

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