New findings to be be published online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences help resolve long-debated questions about the origin and evolution of land plants.
Plants exhibit a phenomenon known as alternation of generations, in which two alternating forms with different amounts of DNA make up a complete life cycle. One form, known as a sporophyte, produces spores, which grow into individuals of the other form, called gametophytes. Gametophytes produce gametes—eggs and sperm—which unite to form a fertilized egg capable of becoming a new sporophyte, thus completing a life cycle. While all plants exhibit alternation of generations, some spend most of their life cycle as sporophytes, and others spend more time in the gametophyte phase.
"Early in the history of plant evolution, a shift occurred between 'lower' plants (algae, liverworts and mosses) with a gametophytes cycle and plants like ferns, pines and flowering plants that spend most of their time with a sporophyte cycle. Geneticists, developmental biologists and evolutionists have been wondering how the switch happened and have put forth competing hypotheses."
Qiu's group used three complementary sets of genetic data, involving more than 700 gene sequences, to resolve relationships among the four major lineages of land plants: liverworts, mosses, hornworts and vascular plants (which include ferns, pines and flowering plants). Their analysis showed that liverworts—tiny green, ribbon-like plants often found along river banks—represent the first lineage that diverged from other land plants when charophyte algae first came onto land, and an obscure group called hornworts, often found in abandoned corn fields, represents the progenitors of the vascular plants.
"Basically we captured a few major events that happened in the first few tens of millions of years of land plant evolution," Qiu said. The results make sense in light of the plants' life cycle patterns. Charophyte algae, liverworts and mosses spend most of the cycle in a free-living gametophyte phase; the sporophyte is a small, short-lived organism that lives on the gametophyte. Vascular plants, on the other hand, spend most of their time as free-living sporophytes, with small, short-lived, gametophytes that often live on the sporophytes. Hornworts may hold a clue to understanding how this shift happened, as they spend most of their life cycle in the gametophyte phase, but their sporophytes---unlike those of liverworts and mosses—show a tendency to become free-living.