Biology » Seedless Plants » Green Algae: Precursors of Land Plants



Until recently, all photosynthetic eukaryotes were considered members of the kingdom Plantae. The brown, red, and gold algae, however, have been reassigned to the Protista kingdom. This is because apart from their ability to capture light energy and fix CO2, they lack many structural and biochemical traits that distinguish plants from protists. The position of green algae is more ambiguous.

Green algae contain the same carotenoids and chlorophyll a and b as land plants, whereas other algae have different accessory pigments and types of chlorophyll molecules in addition to chlorophyll a. Both green algae and land plants also store carbohydrates as starch. Cells in green algae divide along cell plates called phragmoplasts, and their cell walls are layered in the same manner as the cell walls of embryophytes. Consequently, land plants and closely related green algae are now part of a new monophyletic group called Streptophyta.

The remaining green algae, which belong to a group called Chlorophyta, include more than 7000 different species that live in fresh or brackish water, in seawater, or in snow patches. A few green algae even survive on soil, provided it is covered by a thin film of moisture in which they can live. Periodic dry spells provide a selective advantage to algae that can survive water stress.

Some green algae may already be familiar, in particular Spirogyra and desmids. Their cells contain chloroplasts that display a dizzying variety of shapes, and their cell walls contain cellulose, as do land plants. Some green algae are single cells, such as Chlorella and Chlamydomonas, which adds to the ambiguity of green algae classification, because plants are multicellular. Other algae, like Ulva (commonly called sea lettuce), form colonies (see the figure below).

Light micrograph A shows rectangular Spirogyra cells linked in a chain. Light micrograph B shows a oval green desmid cell. Electron micrograph C shows egg-shaped Chlamydomonas cells attached to thin stalks. Photo D shows a colony of Ulva that resembles leaf lettuce.

Chlorophyta include (a) Spirogyra, (b) desmids, (c) Chlamydomonas, and (d) Ulva. Desmids and Chlamydomonas are single-celled organisms, Spirogyra forms chains of cells, and Ulva forms colonies resembling leaves (credit b: modification of work by Derek Keats; credit c: modification of work by Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility, Dartmouth University; credit d: modification of work by Holger Krisp; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)

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