J Syst Evol ›› 2011, Vol. 49 ›› Issue (1): 1-16.DOI: 10.1111/j.1759-6831.2010.00096.x

• Reviews •     Next Articles

Early evolution of life cycles in embryophytes: A focus on the fossil evidence of gametophyte/sporophyte size and morphological complexity

Philippe GERRIENNE* Paul GONEZ   

  1. (Paléobotanique, Paléopalynologie et Micropaléontologie Unit, Department of Geology, University of Liege, B-4000 Liege, Belgium)
  • Received:2010-04-06 Published:2010-10-29

Abstract: Embryophytes (land plants) are distinguished from their green algal ancestors by diplobiontic life cycles, that is, alternation of multicellular gametophytic and sporophytic generations. The bryophyte sporophyte is small and matrotrophic on the dominant gametophyte; extant vascular plants have an independent, dominant sporophyte and a reduced gametophyte. The elaboration of the diplobiontic life cycle in embryophytes has been thoroughly discussed within the context of the Antithetic and the Homologous Theories. The Antithetic Theory proposes a green algal ancestor with a gametophyte-dominant haplobiontic life cycle. The Homologous Theory suggests a green algal ancestor with alternation of isomorphic generations. The shifts that led from haplobiontic to diplobiontic life cycles and from gametophytic to sporophytic dominance are most probably related with terrestrial habitats. Cladistic studies strongly support the Antithetic Theory in repeatedly identifying charophycean green algae as the closest relatives of land plants. In recent years, exceptionally well-preserved axial gametophytes have been described from the Rhynie chert (Lower Devonian, 410 Ma), and the complete life cycle of several Rhynie chert plants has been reconstructed. All show an alternation of more or less isomorphic generations, which is currently accepted as the plesiomorphic condition among all early polysporangiophytes, including basal tracheophytes. Here we review the existing evidence for early embryophyte gametophytes. We also discuss some recently discovered plants preserved as compression fossils and interpreted as gametophytes. All the fossil evidence supports the Antithetic Theory and indicates that the gametophytic generation/sporophytic generation size and complexity ratios show a gradual decrease along the land plant phylogenetic tree.

Key words: Devonian, early land plants, embryophyte, gametophyte, life cycle, sporophyte.