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Spikemoss genome hints at ancient plant transitions

Selaginella moellendorffii.
[Image courtesy of Jing-Ke Weng]

Spikemoss, club moss and quillworts -- this may sound like vocabulary list from a Herbology class at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But, it's actually an important group of plants whose genomic information is shedding light on plant evolution.

An international research team has sequenced the genome of the spikemoss plant, Selaginella moellendorffii. This plant belongs to one of two living groups of vascular plants, which are plants that have channels for transporting water, minerals and other substances through the plant. (Basically, these plants have the features we typically associate with plants, like leaves, roots and stems.)

Spikemoss and its friends, the club mosses and quillworts, make up one group of vascular plants, called the lycophytes. The other group consists of ferns and plants that produce seeds, like flowering plants. The lycophytes flourished during the Carboniferous Period, about 360 to 280 million years ago, and their fossilized remnants make up a major portion of the North American coal deposits used for fuel today.

Because the lycophyte lineage diverged such a long time ago from the flowering plant lineage, Jo Ann Banks of Purdue University and her colleagues sequenced the Selaginella genome to look for genes that may have been important in the early evolution of vascular plants.

Banks and colleagues report the genome sequence in a study being published online by Science at the ScienceExpress Web site on 5 May 2011. The study identifies new features of the spikemoss genome and genes that likely played an important role in the evolution of vascular plants.