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For these species, it’s all in the (clonal) family

Have you seen these examples of clonal colonies?
For these species, it’s all in the (clonal) family hero image

The Takeaway: A clonal colony is a collection of genetically identical organisms that grow in a specific location and originate from a single ancestor. These are important biological phenomena—but can you spot one in the wild?

You’ve almost certainly seen one before. You may have even seen one on your way to work today, or on your last hike, or when snorkeling on vacation. Clonal colonies are groups of organisms that are genetically identical and grow together. While some are well known, others are not. Curious? Read on to learn more about some common and not-so-common examples of clonal colonies.

What is a clonal colony?

A clonal colony is a group of organisms that are genetically identical and live together in a specific location. These can be plants, microbes, marine invertebrates, or fungi. Although the colony may appear to be a collection of distinct individuals, they are actually considered to be a single organism. Many species of clonal organisms work as a small “village” to ensure the survival and propagation of the colony by sharing a common root system. Others divide basic tasks among the distinct clonal “units”—i.e., gathering food vs. locomotion.

Why are clonal colonies important?

Clonal colonies are widespread in many regions of the plant kingdom and dominate many habitats. They play important roles in biodiversity, and some are uniquely adapted to help heal landscapes after catastrophic events such as wildfires and avalanches—if only for a brief period. Others may guard against biological invasion, and still more maintain the proper functioning of ecosystems.

What are some drawbacks to clonal colonies?

While living in a clonal colony has many benefits, life is not always sweet for these unique species. For example, because of their identical genetic structure, a single pest can wipe out an entire colony. Similarly, their limited genetic diversity means they may fall victim to an invading species.

What are some examples of clonal colonies?

Aspens: These trees, found in cool weather regions in several continents, thrive in disturbed landscapes and are typically the first major plant species to inhabit a landscape after traumatic events such as avalanches and wildfires. They grow quickly, creating ethereal groves of dappled sunlight, and die out when understory growth robs them of sunlight and nutrients. The oldest known living organism on Earth is a forest of male quaking aspens in southern Utah estimated to be 14,000 years old—even though individual aspen trees usually don’t live for more than 150 years.

Willows: Willows regenerate asexually, developing dense clonal thickets from root sprouts and forming extensive clonal groves. They dominate riparian habitats and are a common fixture in residential landscaping due in part to the ease with which they can be propagated from roots.

Siphonophores: A marine invertebrate that is closely related to jellyfish. The most well-known species include the Portuguese Man o’ War, Physalia physalis

Bryozoans: Aquatic invertebrate animals that live in sedentary colonies. Species are about a half-millimeter long and contain a unique feeding structure called a lophophore, which is a cluster of tentacles used to filter food.

Blackberry bushes: These tasty treats form dense groves in disturbed habitats and can be propagated by transplanting root suckers.

Fig trees: This fruit tree, common primarily to the Mediterranean area but also to some places in North America, is propagated by cuttings, and both the new plant and the donor plant share identical DNA. Each fig is a clone of a female mother tree, and these produce seeds if they are pollinated.

Turtlegrass: This important seagrass species grows in clonal colonies, one of which in a central Florida estuary known as the Indian River Lagoon, spreads 47 kilometers. One study of that colony found that of 382 samples that were collected, nearly 90% shared a single multilocus genotype. Seagrasses have been documented to live for thousands and even tens of thousands of years, permitting the colony to continue to live through periods when reproduction is not taking place.

Banyan trees: A banyan colony can form what looks like to be a massive forest. One, dubbed the Great Banyan Tree and found in Howrah, India, has been growing for more than 200 years and has withstood several natural disasters. Technically one tree with many trunks, this species spreads over 14,400 square meters and has 2,800 roots that descend to the ground but appear like individual trees.

Wisteria vines: Like many other vines, wisteria naturally form roots on their stems that grow into the soil when the two make contact; this act creates a clonal colony.

Goldenrod ferns: This common forest inhabitant is an erect, rhizomatous perennial herb that can grow to be nearly 2 meters tall. Goldenrods spread by rhizomes, and all of the stems in a clump are genetically identical. Though pretty, goldenrod’s ability to spread makes it invasive in many areas.

Strawberry plants: Perhaps the yummiest clone there is, strawberries, much like blackberries, can spread indefinitely through runners that root into the ground and create clonal colonies. In addition to tasting good, this plant is good for erosion control since it spreads so quickly, and can help prevent the intrusion of invasive plants.

Solutions for genetic cloning

While nature does its own cloning, IDT has a DNA Cloning Guide for researchers engaged in molecular DNA cloning. This guide includes tips for sequence design, codon optimization, and more. You can download yours for free here.

Want to learn more about genetic cloning in research settings? IDT has assembled everything you need to know here, and explains how synthetic DNA fragments can be used for cloning and assembly. IDT’s synthetic DNA fragment solutions for cloning include eBlocks™ Gene Fragments, gBlocks™ Gene Fragments, and gBlocks HiFi Gene Fragments.

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