Early Plant Life

Plant Adaptations to Life on Land

As organisms adapted to life on land, they had to contend with several challenges in the terrestrial environment. Water has been described as “the stuff of life.” The cell’s interior is a thick soup: in this medium, most small molecules dissolve and diffuse, and the majority of the chemical reactions of metabolism take place. Desiccation, or drying out, is a constant danger for an organism exposed to air. Even when parts of a plant are close to a source of water, the aerial structures are likely to dry out. Water also provides buoyancy to organisms. On land, plants need to develop structural support in a medium that does not give the same lift as water. The organism is also subject to bombardment by mutagenic radiation, because air does not filter out ultraviolet rays of sunlight. Additionally, the male gametes must reach the female gametes using new strategies, because swimming is no longer possible. Therefore, both gametes and zygotes must be protected from desiccation. The successful land plants developed strategies to deal with all of these challenges. Not all adaptations appeared at once. Some species never moved very far from the aquatic environment, whereas others went on to conquer the driest environments on Earth.

To balance these survival challenges, life on land offers several advantages. First, sunlight is abundant. Water acts as a filter, altering the spectral quality of light absorbed by the photosynthetic pigment chlorophyll. Second, carbon dioxide is more readily available in air than in water, since it diffuses faster in air. Third, land plants evolved before land animals; therefore, until dry land was colonized by animals, no predators threatened plant life. This situation changed as animals emerged from the water and fed on the abundant sources of nutrients in the established flora. In turn, plants developed strategies to deter predation: from spines and thorns to toxic chemicals.

Early land plants, like the early land animals, did not live very far from an abundant source of water and developed survival strategies to combat dryness. One of these strategies is called tolerance. Many mosses, for example, can dry out to a brown and brittle mat, but as soon as rain or a flood makes water available, mosses will absorb it and are restored to their healthy green appearance. Another strategy is to colonize environments with high humidity, where droughts are uncommon. Ferns, which are considered an early lineage of plants, thrive in damp and cool places such as the understory of temperate forests. Later, plants moved away from moist or aquatic environments using resistance to desiccation, rather than tolerance. These plants, like cacti, minimize the loss of water to such an extent they can survive in extremely dry environments.

The most successful adaptation solution was the development of new structures that gave plants the advantage when colonizing new and dry environments. Four major adaptations contribute to the success of terrestrial plants. The first adaptation is that the life cycle in all land plants exhibits the alternation of generations, a sporophyte in which the spores are formed and a gametophyte that produces gametes. Second is an apical meristem tissue in roots and shoots. Third is the evolution of a waxy cuticle to resist desiccation (absent from some mosses). Finally cell walls with lignin to support structures off the ground. These adaptations all contribute to the success of the land plants, but are noticeably lacking in the closely related green algae—another reason for the debate over their placement in the plant kingdom. They are also not all found in the mosses, which can be regarded as representing an intermediate stage in adaptation to land.

Alternation of Generations

All sexually reproducing organisms have both haploid and diploid cells in their life cycles. In organisms with haplontic life cycles, the haploid stage is dominant, while in organisms with a diplontic life cycle, the diploid stage is the dominant life stage. Dominant in this context means both the stage in which the organism spends most of its time, and the stage in which most mitotic cell reproduction occurs—the multicellular stage. In haplontic life cycles, the only diploid cell is the zygote, which undergoes immediate meiosis to restore the haploid state. In diplontic life cycles, the only haploid cells are the gametes, which combine to restore the diploid state at their earliest convenience. Humans, for example, are diplontic.

Alternation of generations describes a life cycle in which an organism has both haploid and diploid multicellular stages (Figure). This type of life cycle, which is found in all plants, is described as haplodiplontic.

 The plant life cycle has haploid and diploid stages. The cycle begins when haploid (1n) spores undergo mitosis to form a multicellular gametophyte. The gametophyte produces gametes, two of which fuse to form a diploid zygote. The diploid (2n) zygote undergoes mitosis to form a multicellular sporophyte. Meiosis of cells in the sporophyte produces 1n spores, completing the cycle.
Alternation of generations between the 1n gametophyte and 2n sporophyte is shown. Mitosis occurs in both gametophyte and sporophyte generations. Diploid sporophytes produce haploid spores by meiosis, while haploid gametophytes produce gametes by mitosis. (credit: Peter Coxhead)

In alternation of generations, the multicellular haploid form, known as a gametophyte, is followed in the developmental sequence by a multicellular diploid form, the sporophyte. The gametophyte gives rise to the gametes (reproductive cells) by mitosis. This can be the most obvious phase of the life cycle of the plant, as in the mosses, or it can occur in a microscopic structure, such as a pollen grain, in the seed plants. The evolution of the land plants is marked by increasing prominence of the sporophyte generation. The sporophyte stage is barely noticeable in non-vascular plants (the collective term for the plants that include the liverworts and mosses). In the seed plants, the sporophyte phase can be a towering tree, as in sequoias and pines.

Protection of the embryo is a major requirement for land plants. The vulnerable embryo must be sheltered from desiccation and other environmental hazards. In both seedless and seed plants, the female gametophyte provides protection and nutrients to the embryo as it develops into the new sporophyte. This distinguishing feature of land plants gave the group its alternate name of embryophytes.

Sporangia in Seedless Plants

The sporophyte of seedless plants is diploid and results from syngamy (fusion) of two gametes. The sporophyte bears the sporangia (singular, sporangium). The term “sporangia” literally means “a vessel for spores,” as it is a reproductive sac in which spores are formed (Figure). Inside the multicellular sporangia, the diploid sporocytes, or mother cells, produce haploid spores by meiosis, during which the 2n chromosome number is reduced to 1n (note that in many plants, chromosome number is complicated by polyploidy: for example, durum wheat is tetraploid, bread wheat is hexaploid, and some ferns are 1000-ploid). The spores are later released by the sporangia and disperse in the environment. When the haploid spore germinates in a hospitable environment, it generates a multicellular gametophyte by mitosis. The gametophyte supports the zygote formed from the fusion of gametes and the resulting young sporophyte (vegetative form). The cycle then begins anew.

Photo shows sporangia in seedless plant Bryum capillare.
Sporangia. Spore-producing sacs called sporangia grow at the ends of long, thin stalks in this photo of the moss Esporangios bryum. (credit: Javier Martin)

Plants that produce only one type of spore are called homosporous and the resultant gametophyte produces both male and female gametes, usually on the same individual. Non-vascular plants are homosporous, and the gametophyte is the dominant generation in the life cycle. Plants that produce two types of spores are called heterosporous. The male spores are called microspores, because of their smaller size, and develop into the male gametophyte; the comparatively larger megaspores develop into the female gametophyte. A few seedless vascular plants and all seed plants are heterosporous, and the sporophyte is the dominant generation.

The spores of seedless plants are surrounded by thick cell walls containing a tough polymer known as sporopollenin. As the name suggests, it is also found in the walls of pollen grains. This complex substance is characterized by long chains of organic molecules related to fatty acids and carotenoids: hence the yellow color of most pollen. Sporopollenin is unusually resistant to chemical and biological degradation. In seed plants, in which pollen is the male gametophyte, the toughness of sporopollenin explains the existence of well-preserved pollen fossils. Sporopollenin was once thought to be an innovation of land plants; however, the charophyte Coleochaetes also forms spores that contain sporopollenin.

Gametangia in Seedless Plants

Gametangia (singular, gametangium) are structures observed on multicellular haploid gametophytes. In the gametangia, precursor cells give rise to gametes by mitosis. The male gametangium (antheridium) releases sperm. Seedless plants produce sperm equipped with flagella that enable them to swim in a moist environment to the archegonium: the female gametangium. The embryo develops inside the archegonium as the sporophyte. Gametangia are prominent in seedless plants, but are absent or rudimentary in seed plants.

Apical Meristems

Shoots and roots of plants increase in length through rapid cell division in a tissue called the apical meristem, which is a small mitotically active zone of cells found at the shoot tip or root tip (Figure). The apical meristem is made of undifferentiated cells that continue to proliferate throughout the life of the plant. Meristematic cells give rise to all the specialized tissues of the organism. Elongation of the shoots and roots allows a plant to access additional space and resources: light in the case of the shoot, and water and minerals in the case of roots. A separate meristem, called the lateral meristem, produces cells that increase the diameter of tree trunks.

Illustration shows the tip of a root. The cells in the tip are smaller than the more mature cells further up.
Apical meristem at a root tip. Addition of new cells in a root occurs at the apical meristem. Subsequent enlargement of these cells causes the organ to grow and elongate. The root cap protects the fragile apical meristem as the root tip is pushed through the soil by cell elongation.
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