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Look: Genetic analysis reveals the ancient origin of the strawberry

New research explains why the strawberries of today looked different in the past.

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You’re probably most familiar with this type of strawberry: the plump, juicy Fragaria ananassa, also known as the garden strawberry.

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In the grand scheme of history, this hybrid species actually hasn’t been around that long.

It came to fruition when two species were crossbred in the 18th century, after hundreds of years of cultivation.

But in the wild, strawberries have been around for millions of years.

A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences pins down a timeline for the evolution of the Fragaria genus — and reveals a new species.

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Li Xue and Jiajun Lei

For the study, researchers sequenced the genomes of five wild strawberry species alive today.

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Through genetic and fossil analysis, they estimate that the first plants in the Fragaria genus originated roughly 7.94 million years ago.

Then, about 7.38 million years ago, the first plants branched off into separate species.

The first 10 branches on this phylogenetic tree show where different strawberry species popped up in history.

Qiao et. al./PNAS

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The strawberry analysis revealed another surprise — a living species new to science.

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It can be tough to distinguish between wild strawberry varieties with the naked eye.

This is why researchers needed the help of gene sequencing to pinpoint this species’ differences.

“In Fragaria, the lack of many distinguishing phenotypic features between different species makes classification difficult.”

Qiao et. al, study authors

Li Xue and Jiajun Lei

The new wild strawberry is technically called “Fragaria emeiensis Jia J. Lei.” It is found in the mountains of southwest China.

LI XUE AND JIAJUN LEI

F. emeiensis is defined by thick leaf stalks, runners, and leaflets with deep veins.

It looks quite different from the juicy, domesticated strawberries you’d find at the supermarket.

But the evolution of the strawberry is a relatively unexplored subject. The existence of this new species informs our overall understanding of this favorite fruit — and suggets there’s still more to learn.

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