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Discovery of UK’s newest plant species

Two plant scientists working at the University of St Andrews have reported the discovery of Britain’s newest plant species.

In the latest issue of Watsonia, the journal of the Botanical Society of the British Isles, Dr Richard Abbott of the School of Biology and Dr Andrew Lowe, a former research student now working at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Edinburgh, report the discovery of the species which originated on waste- ground in York within the past 30 years.

Dr Abbott said, “At a time in Earth’s history when animal and plant species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate, the discovery of the origin of a new plant species in Britain calls for a celebration as well as being of great scientific interest. The next few years will be critical as to whether it becomes a fully established component of the British flora or a temporary curiosity.”

The new species is a weed that sets seed only three months after germinating. It was discovered by Dr Abbott growing at the edge of a car park near York railway station. A genetic analysis of the plant has shown it is the product of natural hybridisation between the Common groundsel, a native British plant, and the Oxford ragwort, which was introduced to Britain from Sicily some 300 years ago and subsequently became widespread.

The latin name given to the new species is Senecio eboracensis, after Eboracum, the Roman name for York. The new species has the same number of chromosomes as one of its parents and double that of its other parent. A necessary condition for demonstrating the origin of a new species is to show that it does not mate with its progenitors to produce viable offspring. Dr Abbott and Dr Lowe discovered that York groundsel is reproductively isolated from both parents due to chromosomal differences and because it flowers at a different time in the season and reproduces mainly through self-fertilisation. The new species is still found only in York and always as a weed of disturbed ground.

The new species will need to colonise and increase rapidly its numbers on new sites in York and elsewhere to improve its likelihood of survival. Otherwise, chance factors alone, such as intensive weeding and redevelopment of its existing sites, could wipe it out.

Following the discovery and description of the new species, Dr Abbott and two colleagues from Bristol University have recently been awarded a grant of £450,000 from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) for a collaborative study on changes to genome structure and gene expression occurring during hybrid speciation in plants. The research will focus on the newly originated York groundsel, in addition to other hybrid taxa with recent origins. The results of this work will advance considerably the understanding of the molecular changes that accompany the origin of new plant species.

ENDS

NOTE TO EDITORS – Jpeg photographs of the plant – one in its natural setting and the other a herbarium specimen of the plant grown in a greenhouse – available from Claire Grainger – contact details below.

To contact Dr Abbott, please call 01334 463350.

Issued by Beattie Media on behalf of the University of St Andrews For more information please contact: Claire Grainger on 01334 462530, 07730 415 015 or email cg24@st- andrews.ac.uk View University press releases on- line at http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk Ref: yorkplant/standrews/chg/19feb2003

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