Florida Museum of Natural History researchers are leading a study that is helping shed light on the evolution of the first flowers in the world.
Charles Darwin described the sudden origin of flowering plants, which emerged about 130 million years ago, as an abominable mystery.
"There was nothing like them before and nothing like them since," said Andre Chanderbali, lead author of the study and a post-doctoral associate at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
"The origin of the flower is the key to the origin of the angiosperms (flowering plants)," he added.
The flower is one of the key innovations of evolution, responsible for a massive burst of evolution that has resulted in perhaps as many as 400,000 angiosperm species.
Before flowering plants emerged, the seed-bearing plant world was dominated by gymnosperms, which have cone-like structures instead of flowers and include pine trees, sago palms and ginkgos.
Gymnosperms first appeared in the fossil record about 360 million years ago, more than 200 million years before the first angiosperms did.
The new study provides insight into how the first flowering plants evolved from pre-existing genetic programs found in gymnosperms and then developed into the diversity of flowering plants we see today.
"The goal of this research is to understand the original regulatory program, or set of genetic switches, that produced the first flower in the common ancestor of all living flowering plants," said Pam Soltis, study co-author and curator of molecular systematics and evolutionary genetics at the Florida Museum.