The charophytes include several different algal orders that have each been suggested to be the closest relatives of the land plants: the Charales, the Zygnematales, and the Coleochaetales. The Charales can be traced back 420 million years. They live in a range of freshwater habitats and vary in size from a few millimeters to a meter in length. The representative genus is Chara (Figure), often called muskgrass or skunkweed because of its unpleasant smell. Large cells form the thallus: the main stem of the alga. Branches arising from the nodes are made of smaller cells. Male and female reproductive structures are found on the nodes, and the sperm have flagella. Although Chara looks superficially like some land plants, a major difference is that the stem has no supportive tissue. However, the Charales exhibit a number of traits that are significant for adaptation to land life. They produce the compounds lignin and sporopollenin, and form plasmodesmata that connect the cytoplasm of adjacent cells. Although the life cycle of the Charales is haplontic (the main form is haploid, and diploid zygotes are formed but have a brief existence), the egg, and later, the zygote, form in a protected chamber on the haploid parent plant.
The Coleochaetes are branched or disclike multicellular forms. They can produce both sexually and asexually, but the life cycle is basically haplontic. Recent extensive DNA sequence analysis of charophytes indicates that the Zygnematales are more closely related to the embryophytes than the Charales or the Coleochaetales. The Zygnematales include the familiar genus Spirogyra, as well as the desmids. As techniques in DNA analysis improve and new information on comparative genomics arises, the phylogenetic connections between the charophytes and the land plants will continued to be examined to produce a satisfactory solution to the mystery of the origin of land plants.