By Ewen Callaway
Any insect unlucky enough to land on the mouth-like leaves of an Australian pitcher plant will meet a grisly end. The plant’s prey is drawn into a vessel-like ‘pitcher’ organ where a specialized cocktail of enzymes digests the victim.
Now, by studying the pitcher plant’s genome—and comparing its insect-eating fluids to those of other carnivorous plants—researchers have found that meat-eating plants the world over have hit on the same deadly molecular recipe, even though they are separated by millions of years of evolution.
“We’re really looking at a classic case of convergent evolution,” says Victor Albert, a plant-genome scientist at the University of Buffalo, New York, who co-led the study, published in Nature Ecology and Evolution on February 6.
Carnivorous plants occur across the flowering-plant family tree. The Australian pitcher plant (Cephalotus follicularis)—native to a sliver of coastline in Southwest Australia—is closer kin to the starfruit (Averrhoa carambola) than to other species of pitcher plants found in the Americas and southeast Asia. This suggests that carnivory has evolved repeatedly in plants, probably to cope with the nutrient-scarce soils in which they grow, Albert says. “What they’re trying to do is capture nitrogen and phosphorus from their prey.”
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