What is not to like about cycads? They are beautiful, they are ancient, and they have a bizarre reproductive biology. Well, we can now add kin recognition to that list. That's right, cycads can somehow discern when they are growing next to a relative and when they are growing next to an unrelated individual. What's more, this discovery means that kin selection in plants is not only ancient, it is probably more wide spread than we ever thought.
Kin selection and cycads starts at the roots. Although it isn't easy to see, competition for root space is critical for most plant species. Roots are how plants obtain water and nutrients so maximizing root growth is of paramount importance for a plant. This often means taking up space before their neighbors can. That is, unless, that neighbor is your sibling. Researchers set about testing this phenomenon in the lab. By using specialized growth chambers, they were able to compare how plants "behaved" when grown next to their siblings vs. unrelated individuals. What they found was quite astounding.
Cycads growing next to their half siblings allocated significantly less energy to root growth than when they were growing next to unrelated plants. This had implications for their overall size as well. Plants growing next to siblings were significantly smaller at the end of the experiment. This may seem like a disadvantage until you consider it from the perspective of their genes. Half siblings share 50% of their DNA. Since life is all about getting as many copies of your genes into out into the environment as possible, it stands to reason that competing with copies of yourself is often counter productive. That is not the case when no genes are shared. Plants growing next to unrelated individuals responded with increased root mass and thus increased growth. In other words, they were more competitive.
Examples of kin selection abound in the animal kingdom. The same is not true for plants (click here for another example). What this research does, however, is show us that we probably haven't been looking hard enough. Although extant cycad species are not those that once shared the environment with dinosaurs, the lineage to which they belong is nonetheless quite old. If such cases of kin selection occur in cycads, then it stands to reason that this is an ancient phenomenon.