It could reassign its genes, defying the widely-held belief that a genetic code is a fairly rigid blueprint. Instead, the researchers found "variations from plant to plant and which genes they are expressing and which ones they are eliminating. They are still trying to sort this out themselves."
"What we found was a surprise," said Richard Buggs of Queen Mary University in London, who worked on the study as a postdoctoral researcher at the Florida museum and lead author of the report. The "reset button ... could allow subsequent generations to experiment by switching off different genes."
Until now, it was not known that the evolutionary process took place over many generations.
"We didn't know how quickly it happened," Soltis said. "Is this something that occurs almost instantly? It's not. You can see that after 40 or 50 generations. They are still making decisions. We didn't know that. We still don't know how long it takes for this to sort out and settle down and stabilize."
Evolution is frequently described as a "typo" in the genetic blueprint, but this research suggests it is much more complicated, and fluid, and diverse than the instantaneousness of a typo.
It's likely that this is the evolutionary path taken by all life forms, from plants to vertebrates, and it occurred in our own lineage many years ago. A new species slowly makes its way through life, allowing succeeding generations to reprogram genes to meet new challenges, thus emerging as a stable plant or animal after finding the most successful combination.
This new work is an intriguing window into evolution, but like all good science, it also raises a number of questions. What's the triggering mechanism? What causes a daisy to make a "decision" about how to deploy, or eliminate, a specific gene?
"That's a great question," Soltis said. "Right now we are just beginning to understand that they do that. What are they responding to when it happens? I don't really know that we have an answer to that."
So for now, they will keep looking through that new window. And all because of a daisy that attracted the attention of a couple of young scientists nearly three decades ago.