Weeds derived from a crop plant pose special challenges for modern farming
The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once asked whether the living world would be different “if the tape were played twice.” If there were a duplicate Earth evolving quietly beside ours, would we observe the emergence of creatures like ourselves and of plants and animals familiar to us, or would the cast of characters be entirely different?
It’s an intriguing question.
So far replicate Earths are in short supply, but cases of parallel evolution (the same trait evolving independently in related lineages) allow scientists to ask some of the same questions.
One beautiful case of parallel evolution is the double domestication of rice in Africa as well as Asia, which was followed by its double “de-domestication,” or reversion to a wild form, all within the roughly 10,000 years since hunter-gatherers became settled farmers.
With the help of modern genetic technology and the resources of the International Rice GeneBank, which contains more than 112,000 different types of rice, evolutionary biologist Kenneth Olsen, PhD, associate professor of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, has been able to look back in time and ask whether the same mutations underlay the emergence of the same traits in both cultivated and weedy rice.
His latest findings, which take a close look at the genetics of hull color, appear in the July 17, 2013, online issue of the Journal of Evolutionary Biology.
The answers are interesting in their own right but also have practical importance because modern agriculture is radically changing the selection pressures acting on rice, the most important food crop for most of the world’s populations.
In response to these pressures, weedy forms that evolved from the crop forms are taking on traits more like those of wild ancestors. “They’re very aggressive competitors,” Olsen says, “and they’ve become a huge problem both here in the U.S. and all over the world.”
“In some parts of the world farmers have given up trying to grow rice and just market the weedy stuff that’s infested the fields as a health food,” he says. You sometimes see red rice from the Camargue, the delta region in southern France, in stores, he says. “Red rice is full of antioxidants, which tend also to be plant defense chemicals,” Olsen says, “but it is basically a weed.”
Worldwide, most of the cultivated rice is Asian rice, Oryza sativa which was bred from its wild progenitor Oryza rufipogon in southern Asia within the past 10,000 years.
Whether the familiar indica and japonica subspecies of Asian rice also represent independent domestications is controversial. Most of the rice grown in the U.S. is japonica rice, Olsen says, which is genetically pretty different from indica rice, the rice grown in a lot of the tropics.
In any event there was a second unambiguous domestication event about 3,500 years ago when African cultivated rice (O. glaberrima) was bred from the African wild species O. barthii in the Niger River delta.
Scientists are now in a position to examine the genetic basis of both the Asian and African domestications, Olsen says. In a way it’s like being able to go back to check DNA fingerprints at the scene of a crime committed well before DNA testing first became available.
When a plant is domesticated, it acquires a suite of traits called the domestication syndrome that made it easier to grow as a crop. In rice, the syndrome includes loss of shattering (the seeds don’t break off the central grain stalk before harvest), increase in seed size, and loss of dormancy (the seeds all germinate at once and can be harvested at once).
Do the same genetic mutations underlie the emergence of these traits in both the Asian and African domestication events, or did domestication result from different mutations in the same genes, or even from mutations in different genes?
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