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NEWS

Science/Medicine

SCIENCE BRIEF

12:00 AM CST on Sunday, January 14, 2007

Scientists: Biggest flower

evolved from tiny ones

The largest flower in the world – about a yard in diameter – evolved from plants with flowers that measure only a few millimeters, a new study of the flower's DNA indicates.

Flowers of the plant rafflesia are among the most bizarre ever described by botanists. Their buds are the size of basketballs. In bloom, the flowers are blood-red, reek like rotten flesh and can even emit heat. Nauseating to people who approach them, the flowers attract flies that normally feed on dead animals. The flies pollinate new flowers.

The plants, native to southeastern Asia, have been hard to classify because they are parasites of vines, with no visible stems or leaves that usually allow scientists to place them in families. In the current issue of Science, researchers from four U.S. institutions report on new DNA studies indicating that the plant is closely related to a family that includes poinsettias, rubber trees, castor oil plants and the root crop cassava.

The scientists also calculated that early in the plant's evolution, its flowers, which weigh up to 15 pounds, evolved extremely rapidly, becoming almost 80 times bigger after about 46 million years. By comparison, that's like a person reaching the height of the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Sue Goetinck Ambrose

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