Skip to content

Making an orchid family tree

Updated Tuesday 11th December 2007

Imagine there were 19,000 relatives in your family - and you had to make a family tree showing how they were all related…

Recently I attended a conference on orchids at Kew Gardens, it covered all aspects of orchid biology but concentrated on phylogeny (how they are all related to each other). In recent years it has become possible to look at exactly how each species or indeed each individual plant or animal is related to all others using similarities and differences in their DNA. Well in theory all of this is possible but in practice its not so easy.

A large family tree showing the position of all plant families has been produced and beyond this many of the plant families have been broken down into smaller and smaller branches some even showing exactly how each species is related to each other. The orchids are one of the largest plant families containing many thousands of species so it’s a huge task to fill in all the branches of their family tree – imagine there were 19,000 relatives in your family and you had to make a family tree showing how they were all related to each other. At the moment many of the higher level branches have been slotted in showing where groups of species fit and within a few of these groups the smaller branches and twigs down to species level have been done.

One of the most interesting things for me was to see that these marvellous DNA techniques actually failed to tell the difference between some of our most distinctive orchids which are easy to tell apart just by looking at them. For example, take a look The examples below are all orchids of the genus Ophrys, they look similar but we can see they are different and the insects that pollinate them can probably tell they are different too. However the usual DNA techniques have difficulty distinguishing the species. One theory to explain the finding is that this group are rapidly evolving and so there has not been enough time for the small mutations to build up that the DNA techniques use to tell the species apart.

Ophrys lutea Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission

Ophrys lutea and Ophrys tenthredinifera,
[Image: Juan Sanchez used under Creative Commons licence]

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

Bang Goes The Theory 4: Episode 7 Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

TV, Radio & Events 

Bang Goes The Theory 4: Episode 7

This week there's a royal wedding theme as the team look at singing roads, dancing dads and family histories

Article
Darwin Now pod 8: Genetic revolutions Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: photos.com audio icon

Nature & Environment 

Darwin Now pod 8: Genetic revolutions

Genes provide a powerful record of our evolutionary past. Living things even share a genetic toolkit that can generate a breathtaking diversity of body forms. Can DNA also offer clues to what makes us uniquely human?

Audio
15 mins
People Like Me: Nicola Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: N. Morrison article icon

Nature & Environment 

People Like Me: Nicola

Who studies science? We talk to students and graduates - and meet Nicola

Article
Do whales commit suicide? Creative commons image Icon Bahnfrend under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

Nature & Environment 

Do whales commit suicide?

Are humans the only animals who kill themselves, or do other species commit suicide as well? David Lusseau considers the case of whale beachings.

Article
People Like Me: Andrew Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

Nature & Environment 

People Like Me: Andrew

Who studies science? We talk to students and graduates - and meet Andrew

Article
People Like Me: Claire Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC article icon

Nature & Environment 

People Like Me: Claire

Who studies science? We talk to students and graduates - and meet Claire

Article
article icon

Nature & Environment 

Is Anywhere Safe From Invaders?

The impact that the invasion of exotic plants and animals has had on the British Isles - is anywhere safe?

Article
Animals at the extremes: Polar biology Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 2 icon

Nature & Environment 

Animals at the extremes: Polar biology

The extreme challenges of life in the polar regions require the animals who make their habitat there to make many adaptations. This free course, Animals at the extremes: Polar biology, explores the polar climate and how animals like reindeer, polar bears, penguins, sea life and even humans manage to survive there. It looks at the adaptations to physiological proceses, the environmental effects on diet, activity and fecundity, and contrasts the strategies of aquatic and land-based animals in surviving in this extreme habitat.

Free course
14 hrs
article icon

Nature & Environment 

Museum of the Dead: How We Use Your Data

In the Museum of the Dead we ask for your email address at certain points. Here we explain why we need that information.

Article