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Early Plant Life

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. Most biologists also consider 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 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 in other types of algae.

Evolution Connection: Algae and Evolutionary Paths to Photosynthesis

Some scientists consider all algae to be plants, while others assert that only the Charophytes belong in the kingdom Plantae. 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 green algae became photosynthetic by endosymbiosing a green, photosynthetic bacterium about 1.65 billion years ago. That algal line evolved into the Charophytes, and eventually into the modern mosses, ferns, gymnosperms, and angiosperms. Their evolutionary trajectory was relatively straight and monophyletic. In contrast, the other algae—red, brown, golden, stramenopiles, and so on—all became photosynthetic by secondary, or even tertiary, endosymbiotic events; that is, they endosymbiosed cells that had already endosymbiosed a cyanobacterium. These latecomers to photosynthesis are parallels to the Charophytes in terms of autotrophy, but they did not expand to the same extent as the Charophytes, nor did they colonize the land.

The different views on whether all algae are Plantae arise from how these evolutionary paths are viewed. Scientists who solely track evolutionary straight lines (that is, monophyly), consider only the Charophytes as plants. To biologists who cast a broad net over living things that share a common characteristic (in this case, photosynthetic eukaryotes), all algae are plants.

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