Flowering plants also benefited from better plumbing, according to researchers at the University of Tasmania and the University of Tennessee. Tim Brodribb and Taylor Field found that between 140 and 100 million years ago the leaves of flowering plants developed the capacity to hold more fluids, thus doubling their rate of photosynthesis.
Doug and Pam Soltis of the University of Florida, Gainesville, said they believe much of this happened very quickly, possibly within a period of around 5 million years. That's stunning, they said, considering the fact that flowering plants have been around for at least 140 million years.
So Darwin's theory of natural selection still worked. There was just this one case in which things happened remarkably quickly.
But where did it all begin?
Quite possibly, say researchers, on the Pacific islands of New Caledonia. Scientists at the University at Buffalo are leading a multi-institution collaboration that is sequencing the genome of Amborella, described by biologist Victor Albert as a "living fossil."
This small tree, which grows nowhere else on the planet, is believed to be the direct descendent of the common ancestor of all flowering plants.
The researchers hope that by comparing the genetic makeup of Amborella to modern plants they will be better able to figure out how plants cope with threats ranging from drought to global climate change.
"This is work that's related to the human condition in various ways," Albert said in announcing the project last year. "Most of our food comes from flowers. All the fruit crops and grains are flowering plants. Cotton fiber is from fruit, and fruits come from flowers."
So that rose in the front yard is more than just a pretty face. It is a key player in the evolution of the planet from a lifeless sphere to a home full of flowers. And us.