Photo: dianatang (flickr)
The flowers of Rafflesiaare the largest in the world.
The plants produce gigantic blooms, up to three feet across, that weigh over twenty pounds and smell like rotting meat to attract pollinating flies.
Although the flowers are impossible to miss, the rest of the plant is minuscule. Rafflesias have no leaves, roots or stems. Instead, these giant parasitic flowers extract all their nutrition from host plants that they cling to.
However, these aren’t the only unusual traits that Rafflesia has evolved. Even more astounding is what Rafflesia may have accomplished without sex.
Some single-celled organisms like bacteria swap hereditary information, or genes, between different individuals without sex. Some have even been known to swap genes between completely different species of bacteria, though it is very rare for such trades to occur in multi-cellular life forms.
Normally, plants and animals initiate some form of sex to pass along their genes. However, the transfer of genes between two very different species, like an oak tree and a dandelion, is extremely rare, since genetic differences make their sex cells incompatible.
You can imagine how surprised scientists were surprised to learn that mere physical contact, apparently allowed a gene to pass to Rafflesia from their distantly-related hosts, the grape plants.
The method of inter-species gene sharing between different plant species, and the effect it could have on the plants’ characteristics are still not known, but evolutionary biologists have since found four more examples of gene swapping between other parasitic plants and their hosts.
Biologists are now rethinking whether this sort of gene transfer might play a bigger role in plant evolution than previously thought.