Oldest marine plant found by genetic clock

Somatic genetic clock discovered for clonal species.

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A team of researchers from Kiel, London, Oldenburg, and Davis, California, have successfully used a new genetic clock to determine the age of a large marine plant clone. This seagrass clone from the Baltic Sea, estimated to be 1400 years old, is just the beginning.

The clock researchers developed has the potential to unlock the age of many other species, from corals and algae to plants such as reeds or raspberries. This research has far-reaching implications, with potential applications in various fields of biology.

Dr. Thorsten Reusch, a marine ecology professor at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, explains that many plants, fungi, and animals reproduce by making genetically similar offspring. These “clonal species” can grow as big as a football field, but their offspring aren’t genetically identical.

Previous research showed that these offspring collect mutations over time, similar to how cancer forms. Dr. Reusch and his team, researchers from Queen Mary University London and the Helmholtz Institute for Functional Marine Biodiversity in Oldenburg, used this mutation process to create a new clock that can accurately tell how old any clone is.

Researchers at the University of Kiel, led by Professor Reusch, used the new clock to study the age of the widespread seagrass Zostera marina (eelgrass) worldwide. They found some clones in Northern Europe that were hundreds of years old, like giant oak trees. The oldest clone they found was in 1402, from the Baltic Sea. This eelgrass clone is even older than Greenland sharks or Ocean Quahogs, which live for a few hundred years.

Many vital species in the ocean, like corals and seagrasses, reproduce by making copies of themselves. These clones can get very big over time. This study allows us to figure out how accurate these clones are. This information is essential for understanding why these big clones can survive in ever-changing environments.

Once researchers had an excellent eelgrass genome, they could start their work. Another essential part of the study was that researchers at UC Davis had kept a seagrass clone for 17 years, which helped with calibration.

Professor Iliana Baums from HIFMB adds, “They can use these tools to help endangered corals, especially with rising temperatures threatening reefs.”

Professor Thorsten Reusch said, “They expect even older seagrass species, like Posidonia, to be the oldest organisms on Earth. They’ll study these next.”

Journal reference:

  1. Yu, L., Renton, J., Burian, A. et al. A somatic genetic clock for clonal species. Nature Ecology & Evolution. DOI: 10.1038/s41559-024-02439-z.
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