Scientists have found the one ancestor of all flowering plants on Earth. And it looks like a water lily.
The 140-million-year-old flower was both the mother and father – it is bisexual – of every flowering plant around on the Earth today. There are no fossils of the plant, but scientists have worked out what it must have looked like by stitching together a range of data.
As such, it managed to start an ecological revolution that changed the face of the planet as we know it. And it did so with remarkable timing – coming very late in the development of life, but managing to take over everywhere.
The first of the flowering plants, or angiosperm, was relatively simple. It was made up layered petals and contained both male and female reproductive organs.
It only came out during the time the dinosaurs ruled the Earth, brightening up a planet that until then had been populated by the greenery of ferns, horsetails and moss.
The flowers brought with them huge changes to the ecosystems that surrounded them. They led to the rapid evolution of pollinating insects like today’s bees, for instance, and today they are vital to the survival of life on Earth.
But few fossils are still around from those early flowers, making it hard to understand their origins.
For the new study, scientists led by Dr Herve Sauquet, from the University of Paris-Sud in France, combined models of flower evolution with information from a huge database of present-day floral traits.
A picture of their reconstructed primeval flower appears in the latest issue of the journal Nature Communications.
In outward appearance, the ancient flower looks similar to a water lily. Its key feature is multiple whorls of petal-like structures arranged in sets of three.
Within the flower head were (male) stamens that shed pollen towards the centre and a spiral of raised (female) carpels. The male and female organs were separated from one another.
The researchers wrote: “In spite of similarities with some extant (present day) flowers, there is no living species that shares this exact combination of characters.”
The whorled petal pattern challenged the belief of many experts that spiralled petals evolved first and later gave rise to whorled structures. It suggested that the reverse was true, and whorls came first.
The team concluded: “The origin of the angiosperm flower remains among the most difficult and most important unresolved topics in evolutionary biology.
“These results are a major step forward for understanding the origin of floral diversity and evolution in angiosperms as a whole.”
Additional reporting by Press Association