The origin of a land flora


The origin of a land flora fundamentally shifted the course of evolution of life on earth, facilitating terrestrialization of other eukaryotic lineages and altering the planet’s geology, from changing atmospheric and hydrological cycles to transforming continental erosion processes. Despite algal lineages inhabiting the terrestrial environment for a considerable preceding period, they failed to evolve complex multicellularity necessary to conquer the land. About 470 million years ago, one lineage of charophycean alga evolved complex multicellularity via developmental innovations in both haploid and diploid generations and became land plants (embryophytes), which rapidly diversified to dominate most terrestrial habitats. Genome sequences have provided unprecedented insights into the genetic and genomic bases for embryophyte origins, with some embryophyte-specific genes being associated with the evolution of key developmental or physiological attributes, such as meristems, rhizoids and the ability to form mycorrhizal associations. However, based on the fossil record, the evolution of the defining feature of embryophytes, the embryo, and consequently the sporangium that provided a reproductive advantage, may have been most critical in their rise to dominance. The long timeframe and singularity of a land flora were perhaps due to the stepwise assembly of a large constellation of genetic innovations required to conquer the terrestrial environment.