Sphagnum Subnitens Peat Moss: The Plant That Conquered America

01/14/2011 03:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What do Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte and peat moss have in common? Apparently, they all conquered nations.

According to BBC, a study published in Molecular Ecology has found that the common peat moss Sphagnum subnitens is genetically identical across northwestern North America. What does this mean? It means that every sample originated from a single parent. And this parent apparently conquered North America in under 300 years.

A similar situation exists in New Zealand, where all of the peat moss is from just two parent plants. Plant ecologists find these results "extremely surprising," in part because Europe has a wide variety of S. subnitens mosses. The researchers in fact argue that this is "the most genetically uniform group of plants having a widespread distribution yet detected."

Before these researchers (hailing from Ramapo College, Binghamton University, and Duke University) began their study, there had been no other research on this plant's genetic relationships. Once the study was underway, Professor Eric Karlin says they discovered "100% of the gene pool was contributed by one individual." Talk about extreme plant narcissism.

S. subnitens may be able to do this because of a unique way of reproducing, where one parent produces genetically identical egg and sperm. This in turn produces offspring with two copies of identical DNA, and thus the offspring are genetically the same as their parent. This form of reproduction is also seen in ferns and some other seedless plants.

So just how did one plant come to conquer North America? It is believed that a single founder plant arrived from Europe between the 18th and 20th centuries and then started reproducing.

In what may be a successful case for inbreeding, the plant population appears to be in good health and does not seem to have suffered due to a lack of diversity.

This specific type of peat moss grows in bogs and forms carpets of various colors. The conquering plant is just a few centimeters tall... perhaps it has a Napoleon complex?