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The biologist Chris Martine has dedicated much of his work as a scientist to Solanaceaeplants, which includes potatoes, eggplant or pepper, among others. But what has drawn his attention the most are the unusual methods of reproduction of Solanum jobsonii, a new bush tomato species located in the Limmen National Park in northern Australia. It is an andromonoic plant, that is, it has hermaphrodite flowers and male flowers at the same time.
Its leaves are greyish green and purple flowers and it has long confused scientists, since every time they watched the plant, the sex of the flowers had changed. Hermaphrodite vegetation is not a rarity in the plant world, but this tomato species does not conform to any pattern known until now. “This has baffled me,” wrote Peter Latz, a botanist from central Australia, after a trip to this area in 1974, when he discovered the plant.
This week, the mystery has been solved in an article published in PhytoKeys. Martine’s team of American and Australian biologists have clarified the sexual expression of this Solanum variety which they have called Solanum plastisexum, taking advantage of a Greek root that means moldable or changeable. “When contemplating the scope of life on Earth, the notion of a relentless sexual binary consisting of different and disconnected types is essentially a fallacy,” the researchers write.
There are many living organisms that exhibit surprising sexual forms. This is the case of a species of completely female lizard or that of clown fish, which are born male and can return to females later. But Solanum plastisexum’s behavior is unheard of, according to scientists, because his sexual expression seems to be unpredictable. Angela McDonnell, a professor at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania and co-author of the article, explains: “This new specific species has been unnamed for many years because nobody has been able to perceive what it does, how and why.”
Australia is among those few nations considered megadiverse, which means it has a huge variety of animal and plant life. Around 70% of the species are not described and biologists fear that many of them will disappear before being identified by the action of climate change and the increase in the local climate. For now, the team will focus on the genetic material of Solanum plastisexum to find out their historical evolutionary past and try to perceive their sexual trajectory.