Early Plant Life

The kingdom Plantae constitutes large and varied groups of organisms. There are more than 300,000 species of catalogued plants. Of these, more than 260,000 are seed plants. Mosses, ferns, conifers, and flowering plants are all members of the plant kingdom. Land plants arose within the Archaeplastida, which includes the red algae (Rhodophyta) and two groups of green algae, Chlorophyta and Charaphyta. Most biologists also consider at least some green algae to be plants, although others exclude all algae from the plant kingdom. The reason for this disagreement stems from the fact that only green algae, the Chlorophytes and Charophytes, share common characteristics with land plants (such as using chlorophyll a and b plus carotene in the same proportion as plants). These characteristics are absent from other types of algae.

Evolution Connection

Algae and Evolutionary Paths to PhotosynthesisSome scientists consider all algae to be plants, while others assert that only the green algae belong in the kingdom Plantae. Still others include only the Charophytes among the plants. These divergent opinions are related to the different evolutionary paths to photosynthesis selected for in different types of algae. While all algae are photosynthetic—that is, they contain some form of a chloroplast—they didn’t all become photosynthetic via the same path.

The ancestors to the Archaeplastida became photosynthetic by forming an endosymbiotic relationship with a green, photosynthetic bacterium about 1.65 billion years ago. That algal line evolved into the red and green algae, and eventually into the modern mosses, ferns, gymnosperms, and angiosperms. Their evolutionary trajectory was relatively straight and monophyletic. In contrast, algae outside of the Archaeplastida, e.g., the brown and golden algae of the stramenopiles, and so on—all became photosynthetic by secondary, or even tertiary, endosymbiotic events; that is, they engulfed cells that already contained an endosymbiotic cyanobacterium. These latecomers to photosynthesis are parallels to the Archaeplastida in terms of autotrophy, but they did not expand to the same extent as the Archaeplastida, nor did they colonize the land.

Scientists who solely track evolutionary straight lines (that is, monophyly), consider only the Charophytes as plants. The common ancestor of Charophytes and land plants excludes the other members of the Archaeplastida. Charophytes also share other features with the land plants. These will be discussed in more detail in another section.

Link to Learning

Go to this interactive website to get a more in-depth view of the Charophytes.

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