By Wendy Langhans
Are you picky about your coffee? Do you have a favorite coffeeshop? Or are you more laid-back and think any coffeeshop will do, as long as it’s convenient? In biology, species are described as generalists if they are able to thrive in a wide range of habitats or environmental conditions. If they thrive in only a narrow range, they are know as specialists. So if the barista calls you by name as you walk through the door, you are the biological equivalent of a specialist.
Plants can also be generalists or specialists. Consider the Common monkey-flower  (Mimulus guttatus). Common monkey-flowers can be found in almost every county in California, so you would assume this plant is a generalist. But looks can be misleading.
There are significant differences between Common monkey-flowers found near the coast and those found further inland, so much so, that botanists have classified them as different sub-species. The climate is moister and cooler on the coast, where the Common monkey-flower is “a lush, moisture-loving, salt-tolerant perennial.” But further inland, where it’s hotter and drier, the Common monkey-flower is a short, “faster-flowering, drought-tolerant annual”. They look the same, but they don’t act the same. Why is that?
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A recently published article  provides a clue. A part of the plant’s DNA - about 2.2 million letters and 350 genes - did a back-flip.
What researchers found “was that a large chunk of the plant's genome...are working differently in each ecotype  of the plant. The difference is called a genetic inversion, a long piece of DNA that has been clipped out of a chromosome at both ends and then reinserted essentially upside down.”
Genetic inversions “are particularly interesting to biologists who are trying to figure out how one species becomes two.” For example, genetic inversions  “may account for much of the evolutionary difference” between humans and chimpanzees.
So a genetic inversion allow different sub-species of Common monkey flowers to thrive in different habitats. Perhaps this also explains why chimpanzees, unlike humans, do not eat coffee beans.
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Saturday, October 16, 8-10 AM, Birding Hike at Towsley Canyon. For directions and trail maps, click here .
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