Human intervention allows ancient plant to delay its inevitable extinction
As far as we can tell, most organisms have been shaped by the need to keep their particular set of DNA in action. On a macro scale, this means that a species wants other members of their species to be successful, since that means there’s more of a gene pool for offspring to interact with. Individuals’ goals can shift a bit, as they want to propagate a version of their genes most matching their own. This can lead to competing with members of the same species for resources, but maybe helping out family members since they’re the next best thing. Somewhere along this spectrum is a particular plant that’s both succeeding and failing its genetic legacy at the same time. This isn’t because of a quirk of this particular plant, as much as our interest in cloning it.
The plant in question is the last cycad on Earth, genetically speaking. It was originally discovered in the Ngoya Forest in southern Africa, back in 1895. Named for its discoverer, James Medley Wood, Wood’s cycad (Encephalartos woodii) turned out to be the last member of its species anyone would ever see. Cycads had once been a hugely successful group of plants, growing around the world as far back as the Mesozoic era. The palm-tree-like plants had been eaten by dinosaurs, survived multiple extinction events, but after decades of searching, seemed to have finally been reduced to a single male specimen. That original specimen is now dead as well, but its genes live on thanks to multiple clones being grown around the world.
Continuing through cloning
This is where the genetic legacy of E. woodii starts getting weird. Without any female plants, the surviving clones can’t reproduce to grow new plants. While some plants can self pollinate, these males can grow their large, yellow seed cones, but they won’t really go anywhere. In this sense, the lineage has collapsed, and these genes are the end of the road. On the other hand, you could argue that the human intervention has allowed this individual’s set of DNA to live on beyond any of its peers, and that as long as we keep a population of clones up, that one male plant from 1895 is genetically immortal. That’s a fragile situation though, as any weaknesses, such as to a particular disease or fungus, is equally shared by all the clones, meaning they could all be wiped out without much recourse.
Humans have a few other tricks up our sleeves though, and we’re not letting E. woodii disappear without a fight. The clones are distributed at various greenhouses around the world to allow for some degree of quarantine from each other. We’re also doing our best to breed them to other species of plants, in particular Encephalartos natalensis, the natal cycad. Each generation of hybrid offspring are then being mated back to one of the original clones, pushing the them closer and closer to the original male’s genome while still allowing for some sexual recombination of genes. The result won’t be an exact match to E. woodii, but a new strain of plants carrying the legacy of the final plant forward more directly than most plants can hope for.
Source: World's loneliest plant is a relic of the dinosaur age by Bryan Nelson, Mother Nature Network