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Collaborative Success Stories: Pattern of Growth


University of Missouri researchers say understanding more about how plants and insects co-evolve could one day lead to more efficient crops.

In the 1960s, scientists first described co-evolution: two species mutually influencing each other’s development. Fifty years later, Bond Life Sciences Center investigator Chris Pires led an international team studying the genetic mechanisms involved. Using advanced genomics, they analyzed the evolutionary family tree of plants in the cabbage family and compared it to the lineage of cabbage butterflies. Major advances in the plants’ chemical defenses were followed by the insects evolving counter-tactics over millions of years and continuing to eat the plants.

Modern genetic tools confirmed what early scientists only hypothesized. Rather than simple DNA mutations, the scientists found changes in the insects and plants were prompted by new copies of the genes. Over 90 million years, the interactions resulted in more new species compared to organisms that did not co-evolve.

This discovery has implications for crops. “If we can harness the power of genetics and determine what causes these copies of genes, we could produce plants that are more pest resistant to insects that are co-evolving with them,” says Pires. “It could open different avenues for creating plants and food that are more efficiently grown.”

Dr. J. Chris Pires is associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Arts and Science, an investigator in the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center and a member of MU’s Interdisciplinary Plant Group and Informatics Institute.

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Related Initiative(s):
Food for the Future