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DNA Solves a Botanical Mystery

A South American flowering shrub has confused botanists for decades as they tried to determine whether it was a new species, says Scientific American's Daisy Yuhas. Thanks to DNA sequencing technology, researchers are able to say that the plant, now called Brunfelsia plowmaniana, is indeed a new species. The plant , described in the journal PhytoKeys, marks it as an "evolutionary newcomer," Yuhas says, and the decision to use genomic data to differentiate this new plant "could open the door to future DNA definitions of new botanical species."

Botanists first collected the plant 30 years ago in Bolivia and identified it as a known member of the nightshade family. But some questioned how this plant could have dispersed into the Andes away from other plants of its kind, Yuhas says, and the plant remained unclassified. Munich Botanical Garden molecular biologist Natalia Filipowicz recently decided to re-examine it. "Filipowicz studied specimens from 50 species of Brunfelsia to characterize the genetic variation across the genus," Yuhas says. When she examined the Andean plant, she found a set of unique genes that set it apart from its relatives. There has been a long-running argument in botanical circles about whether molecular analysis should be used to identify plants, Yuhas says. Filipowicz's colleague Susanne Renner tells Yuhas that the B. plowmaniana case may have gone a long way to convincing botanists that using DNA may be the way of the future for the field.

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