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Concept: Embryophyte


Establishing the timescale of early land plant evolution is essential for testing hypotheses on the coevolution of land plants and Earth’s System. The sparseness of early land plant megafossils and stratigraphic controls on their distribution make the fossil record an unreliable guide, leaving only the molecular clock. However, the application of molecular clock methodology is challenged by the current impasse in attempts to resolve the evolutionary relationships among the living bryophytes and tracheophytes. Here, we establish a timescale for early land plant evolution that integrates over topological uncertainty by exploring the impact of competing hypotheses on bryophyte-tracheophyte relationships, among other variables, on divergence time estimation. We codify 37 fossil calibrations for Viridiplantae following best practice. We apply these calibrations in a Bayesian relaxed molecular clock analysis of a phylogenomic dataset encompassing the diversity of Embryophyta and their relatives within Viridiplantae. Topology and dataset sizes have little impact on age estimates, with greater differences among alternative clock models and calibration strategies. For all analyses, a Cambrian origin of Embryophyta is recovered with highest probability. The estimated ages for crown tracheophytes range from Late Ordovician to late Silurian. This timescale implies an early establishment of terrestrial ecosystems by land plants that is in close accord with recent estimates for the origin of terrestrial animal lineages. Biogeochemical models that are constrained by the fossil record of early land plants, or attempt to explain their impact, must consider the implications of a much earlier, middle Cambrian-Early Ordovician, origin.

Concepts: Evolution, Plant, Plants, Bryophyte, Embryophyte, Moss, Marchantiophyta, Hornwort


Mosses are among the earliest branching embryophytes and probably originated not later than the early Ordovician when atmospheric CO2 was higher and O2 was lower than today. The C3 biochemistry and physiology of their photosynthesis suggests, by analogy with tracheophytes, that growth of extant bryophytes in high CO2 approximating Ordovician values would increase the growth rate. This occurs for many mosses, including Physcomitrella patens in suspension culture, although recently published transcriptomic data on this species at high CO2 and present-day CO2 show down-regulation of the transcription of several genes related to photosynthesis. It would be useful if transcriptomic (and proteomic) data comparing growth conditions are linked to measurements of growth and physiology on the same, or parallel, cultures. Mosses (like later-originating embryophytes) have been subject to changes in bulk atmospheric CO2 and O2 throughout their existence, with evidence, albeit limited, for positive selection of moss Rubisco. Extant mosses are subject to a large range of CO2 and O2 concentrations in their immediate environments, especially aquatic mosses, and mosses are particularly influenced by CO2 generated by, and O2 consumed by, soil chemoorganotrophy from organic C produced by tracheophytes (if present) and bryophytes.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Plant, Bryophyte, Embryophyte, Moss, Marchantiophyta, Physcomitrella patens, Mosses


Lignin, one of the most abundant biopolymers on Earth, derives from the plant phenolic metabolism. It appeared upon terrestrialization and is thought critical for plant colonization of land. Early diverging land plants do not form lignin, but already have elements of its biosynthetic machinery. Here we delete in a moss the P450 oxygenase that defines the entry point in angiosperm lignin metabolism, and find that its pre-lignin pathway is essential for development. This pathway does not involve biochemical regulation via shikimate coupling, but instead is coupled with ascorbate catabolism, and controls the synthesis of the moss cuticle, which prevents desiccation and organ fusion. These cuticles share common features with lignin, cutin and suberin, and may represent the extant representative of a common ancestor. Our results demonstrate a critical role for the ancestral phenolic metabolism in moss erect growth and cuticle permeability, consistent with importance in plant adaptation to terrestrial conditions.

Concepts: Amino acid, Metabolism, Plant, Cell wall, Bryophyte, Embryophyte, Moss, Marchantiophyta


The expansion of plants onto land was a formative event that brought forth profound changes to the earth’s geochemistry and biota. Filamentous eukaryotic microbes developed the ability to colonize plant tissues early during the evolution of land plants, as demonstrated by intimate, symbiosis-like associations in >400 million-year-old fossils. However, the degree to which filamentous microbes establish pathogenic interactions with early divergent land plants is unclear. Here, we demonstrate that the broad host-range oomycete pathogenPhytophthora palmivoracolonizes liverworts, the earliest divergent land plant lineage. We show thatP. palmivoraestablishes a complex tissue-specific interaction withMarchantia polymorpha, where it completes a full infection cycle within air chambers of the dorsal photosynthetic layer. Remarkably,P. palmivorainvaginatesM. polymorphacells with haustoria-like structures that accumulate host cellular trafficking machinery and the membrane syntaxin MpSYP13B, but not the related MpSYP13A. Our results indicate that the intracellular accommodation of filamentous microbes is an ancient plant trait that is successfully exploited by pathogens likeP. palmivora.

Concepts: Bacteria, Eukaryote, Plant, Embryophyte


The evolutionary emergence of land plant body plans transformed the planet. However, our understanding of this formative episode is mired in the uncertainty associated with the phylogenetic relationships among bryophytes (hornworts, liverworts, and mosses) and tracheophytes (vascular plants). Here we attempt to clarify this problem by analyzing a large transcriptomic dataset with models that allow for compositional heterogeneity between sites. Zygnematophyceae is resolved as sister to land plants, but we obtain several distinct relationships between bryophytes and tracheophytes. Concatenated sequence analyses that can explicitly accommodate site-specific compositional heterogeneity give more support for a mosses-liverworts clade, “Setaphyta,” as the sister to all other land plants, and weak support for hornworts as the sister to all other land plants. Bryophyte monophyly is supported by gene concatenation analyses using models explicitly accommodating lineage-specific compositional heterogeneity and analyses of gene trees. Both maximum-likelihood analyses that compare the fit of each gene tree to proposed species trees and Bayesian supertree estimation based on gene trees support bryophyte monophyly. Of the 15 distinct rooted relationships for embryophytes, we reject all but three hypotheses, which differ only in the position of hornworts. Our results imply that the ancestral embryophyte was more complex than has been envisaged based on topologies recognizing liverworts as the sister lineage to all other embryophytes. This requires many phenotypic character losses and transformations in the liverwort lineage, diminishes inconsistency between phylogeny and the fossil record, and prompts re-evaluation of the phylogenetic affinity of early land plant fossils, the majority of which are considered stem tracheophytes.

Concepts: Evolution, Plant, Phylogenetics, Bryophyte, Embryophyte, Moss, Marchantiophyta, Hornwort


Endozoochory plays a prominent role for the dispersal of seed plants, and dispersal vectors are well known. However, for taxa such as ferns and bryophytes, endozoochory has only been suggested anecdotally but never tested in controlled experiments. We fed fertile leaflets of three ferns and capsules of four bryophyte species to three slug species. We found that, overall, spores germinated from slug feces in 57.3 % of all 89 fern and in 51.3 % of all 117 bryophyte samples, showing that the spores survived gut passage of slugs. Moreover, the number of samples within which spores successfully germinated did not differ among plant species but varied strongly among slug species. This opens new ecological perspectives suggesting that fern and bryophyte endozoochory by gastropods is a so-far-overlooked mode of dispersal, which might increase local population sizes of these taxa by spore deposition on suitable substrates.

Concepts: Plant, Fungus, Spore, Fern, Sporangium, Bryophyte, Embryophyte, Moss


Species-level identification and delimitation of bryophytes using the proposed general barcode markers for land plants has been challenging. Bryophyta (mosses) is the second most species-rich group of land plants after angiosperms, and it is thus of great importance to find useful barcoding regions also for this group of plants. We investigated how the plastid regions atpF-atpH, rbcL and trnH-psbA and the nuclear ITS2 region performed as barcode markers on closely related bryophyte taxa of selected moss (Bartramia, Distichium, Fissidens, Meesia and Syntrichia) and liverwort (Blepharostoma) genera from boreal and arctic regions. We also evaluated how sequencing success of herbarium specimens is related to length of the sequenced fragment, specimen age and taxonomic group. Sequencing success was higher for shorter fragments and younger herbarium specimens, but was lower than expected in the genera Distichium and Fissidens, indicating imperfect universality of the primers used. None of the studied DNA barcode regions showed a consistent barcode gap across the studied genera. As a single locus, the region atpF-atpH performed slightly better than rbcL and ITS2 and much better than trnH-psbA in terms of grouping conspecific sequences in monophyletic groups. This marker also gave a higher percentage of correct hits when conducting blast searches on a local database of identified sequences. Concatenated data sets of two and three markers grouped more conspecific sequences in monophyletic groups, but the improvement was not great compared with atpF-atpH alone. A discussion of recent studies testing barcode regions for bryophytes is given. We conclude that atpF-atpH, rbcL and ITS2 are to be the most promising barcode markers for mosses.

Concepts: Species, Plant, Sequence, Bryophyte, Embryophyte, Moss, Marchantiophyta, Hornwort


The origins of the five groups of living seed plants, including the single relictual species Ginkgo biloba, are poorly understood, in large part because of very imperfect knowledge of extinct seed plant diversity. Here we describe well-preserved material from the Early Cretaceous of Mongolia of the previously enigmatic Mesozoic seed plant reproductive structure Umaltolepis, which has been presumed to be a ginkgophyte. Abundant new material shows that Umaltolepis is a seed-bearing cupule that was borne on a stalk at the tip of a short shoot. Each cupule is umbrella-like with a central column that bears a thick, resinous, four-lobed outer covering, which opens from below. Four, pendulous, winged seeds are attached to the upper part of the column and are enclosed by the cupule. Evidence from morphology, anatomy, and field association suggests that the short shoots bore simple, elongate Pseudotorellia leaves that have similar venation and resin ducts to leaves of living GinkgoUmaltolepis seed-bearing structures are very different from those of Ginkgo but very similar to fossils described previously as Vladimaria. Umaltolepis and Vladimaria do not closely resemble the seed-bearing structures of any living or extinct plant, but are comparable in some respects to those of certain Peltaspermales and Umkomasiales (corystosperms). Vegetative similarities of the Umaltolepis plant to Ginkgo, and reproductive similarities to extinct peltasperms and corystosperms, support previous ideas that Ginkgo may be the last survivor of a once highly diverse group of extinct plants, several of which exhibited various degrees of ovule enclosure.

Concepts: Plant, Seed, Plant morphology, Cretaceous, Embryophyte, Ginkgo, Spermatophyte, Bennettitales


Streptophytes are unique among photosynthetic eukaryotes in having conquered land. As the ancestors of land plants, streptophyte algae are hypothesized to have possessed exaptations to the environmental stressors encountered during the transition to terrestrial life. Many of these stressors, including high irradiance and drought, are linked to plastid biology. We have investigated global gene expression patterns across all six major streptophyte algal lineages, analyzing a total of around 46,000 genes assembled from a little more than 1.64 billion sequence reads from six organisms under three growth conditions. Our results show that streptophyte algae respond to cold and high light stress via expression of hallmark genes used by land plants (embryophytes) during stress-response signaling and downstream responses. Among the strongest differentially regulated genes were those associated with plastid biology. We observed that among streptophyte algae, those most closely related to land plants, especiallyZygnema, invest the largest fraction of their transcriptional budget in plastid-targeted proteins and possess an array of land plant-type plastid-nucleus communication genes. Streptophyte algae more closely related to land plants also appear most similar to land plants in their capacity to respond to plastid stressors. Support for this notion comes from the detection of a canonical abscisic acid receptor of the PYRABACTIN RESISTANCE (PYR/PYL/RCAR) family inZygnema, the first found outside the land plant lineage. We conclude that a fine-tuned response toward terrestrial plastid stressors was among the exaptations that allowed streptophytes to colonize the terrestrial habitat on a global scale.

Concepts: DNA, Photosynthesis, Gene, Gene expression, Organism, Eukaryote, Plant, Embryophyte


Across the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, widespread ice retreat during the 20th century has sharply accelerated since 2004. In Sverdrup Pass, central Ellesmere Island, rapid glacier retreat is exposing intact plant communities whose radiocarbon dates demonstrate entombment during the Little Ice Age (1550-1850 AD). The exhumed bryophyte assemblages have exceptional structural integrity (i.e., setae, stem structures, leaf hair points) and have remarkable species richness (60 of 144 extant taxa in Sverdrup Pass). Although the populations are often discolored (blackened), some have developed green stem apices or lateral branches suggesting in vivo regrowth. To test their biological viability, Little Ice Age populations emerging from the ice margin were collected for in vitro growth experiments. Our results include a unique successful regeneration of subglacial bryophytes following 400 y of ice entombment. This finding demonstrates the totipotent capacity of bryophytes, the ability of a cell to dedifferentiate into a meristematic state (analogous to stem cells) and develop a new plant. In polar ecosystems, regrowth of bryophyte tissue buried by ice for 400 y significantly expands our understanding of their role in recolonization of polar landscapes (past or present). Regeneration of subglacial bryophytes broadens the concept of Ice Age refugia, traditionally confined to survival of land plants to sites above and beyond glacier margins. Our results emphasize the unrecognized resilience of bryophytes, which are commonly overlooked vis-a-vis their contribution to the establishment, colonization, and maintenance of polar terrestrial ecosystems.

Concepts: Stem cell, Plant, Glacier, Embryophyte, Canadian Arctic Archipelago, Little Ice Age, Ellesmere Island, Retreat of glaciers since 1850