The full genome sequence of the Australian pitcher plant is published online this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution, revealing how carnivorous plants evolved the capacity to digest their prey.
The Australian pitcher plant (Cephalotus follicularis) produces both carnivorous leaves filled with fluids that can digest their animal prey, and non-carnivorous leaves, meaning that they can be compared to see how carnivory develops. Kenji Fukushima, Victor Albert, Shuaicheng Li, Mitsuyasu Hasebe, and colleagues sequenced the genome of C. follicularis and then compared the genome-wide expression patterns of both leaf types, illuminating some of the unique adaptations of carnivorous plants such as prey attraction, capture, and digestion.
The authors then compared the digestive fluids within the C. follicularis carnivorous leaves with those of three other distantly related carnivorous plants - the lance-leaf sundew, the Philippines pitcher plant, and the purple pitcher plant. They find that genes associated with stress responses in other plants are repurposed to work as digestive fluid proteins in all four types of carnivorous plants studied. The same combination of proteins and amino acids leads to digestive ability in all four plants, indicating that carnivory independently evolved multiple times across species.