The world’s largest plant is an ancient self-cloning seaweed

An Australian World Heritage Site, Shark Bay serves as home to various animals that feed on its flowering seagrass. It turns out that seaweed called Poseidon’s Ribbon Weed, or Posidonia australis, is a single ancient plant that has been self-cloning for the last 4,500 years. Researchers from the University of Western Australia and Flinders University examined samples of the organism was taken from across the bay and DNA fingerprinted using 18,000 genetic markers. What they found was that the seagrass stretched 180 kilometers (112 miles) — the size of Cincinnati, as The New York Times Notes – from Shark Bay is only a single plant.

Lead author Dr. Elizabeth Sinclair said they are often asked how many plants grow in seagrass beds. For Shark Bay, lead author and UWA student Jane Edgeloe said, “We were blown away by the answer—there was only one! That’s it, only one facility has expanded over 180 km at Shark Bay, making it the largest known facility on earth.”

The Posidonia apparently clones itself by producing new shoots that grow from its root system. It doesn’t reproduce sexually because it most likely isn’t able to: The organism has a condition called polyploidy, which means it has inherited 100 percent of each parent’s genome instead of just 50 percent from each. Because polyploidy often leads to infertility, cloning may be the only way for the Shark Bay Posidonia to reproduce.

However, Sinclair said its polyploidy may also have made it more resilient than usual. It could have given the organism the “ability to cope with a wide range of conditions, which is a great thing about climate change.” It remains to be seen whether Shark Bay posidonia will continue to thrive in the face of modern climate change, but researchers may find out soon enough. They ran a series of experiments to find out how it survives in environments with variable conditions, including a wide range of temperatures and salinities, and extremes of light and darkness.

You can read the group’s newspaper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

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