Sandy’s Garden ... Shetland Monkeyflower

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Universities are sometimes regarded as academic institutions.

Places where matters of little importance to the real world are researched, investigated, reported on, discussed and taught to students who lead a closeted life, remote from the everyday concerns of lesser mortals. How wrong such an impression is! Universities … including the great and the good … play a part in all of our lives. Where, for example, will you find an authoritative definition of that very recently introduced Americanism ‘the alt-left’? Where better than Oxford Living Dictionaries … yes, that’s Oxford University … which tells me that, “In the aftermath of Charlottesville, some in the alt-right, among others, are loosely using the term alt-left to defame various critics and opponents.” It also informs me that, “The white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and white nationalists who rallied in Charlottesville are commonly grouped under the self-styled label alt-right, or alternative right, a word that was shortlisted for Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year 2016.” Well, that refers to the real world in which I live.

The Oxford Living Dictionary also gives these two definitions … among others … of ‘evolution’: “The process by which different kinds of living organism are believed to have developed from earlier forms during the history of the earth;” and, “The gradual development of something.” I suspect, gentle reader, that you … like me … tend to think of evolution as necessarily taking a very long time to come to fruition – probably millennia if not aeons. It came as something of a surprise to me to read the headline, “University of Stirling team discovers new plant in Shetland,” atop a story which began, “Scientists at the University of Stirling have discovered a new type of plant growing in Shetland - with its evolution only having occurred in the last 200 years.” Dr Mario Vallejo-Marin, Associate Professor in Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Stirling, reassures me when he writes, “Evolution is often thought to be a slow process taking thousands or millions of years. Yet we show that a major evolutionary step can occur in a couple hundred years.” So my expectation that evolution must be a very protracted process is a common misconception.

The scientific paper prepared by a team from Stirling, working with Dr James Higgins at the University of Leicester, carried out tests after a “chance encounter” with the plant while conducting fieldwork near Quarff, Shetland. The actual paper is a very lengthy technical document … beyond my powers of understanding, I confess … explaining in great detail the work carried out by postdoctoral researcher Dr Violeta Simon-Porcar and her team. The paper’s full title is, Recent autopolyploidisation in a wild population of Mimulus guttatus (Phrymaceae) … I did describe it as ‘is a very lengthy technical document’ … and has been published in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society. Fortunately, I have found a basic description of the team’s discovery. The team measured the plant’s genome size … a genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA … and found that the new plant has doubled its genome without hybridisation … cross-breeding with another member of the plant’s family … and has the same species as both its father and mother; and has done this in 200 years.

The Shetland monkeyflower, as this new member of the family Mimulus guttatus … commonly called the yellow monkeyflower …has been called, is larger and more open than most monkeyflowers and has yellow flowers with small red spots. It’s not so much the discovery of a new flower that is exciting scientists – there are plenty of previously-unidentified species out there. What is thrilling the researchers is the discovery of a new species that proves that evolution can occur much more quickly than was previously thought.