Plant biologists agree that it all began with green algae. At some point in our planet's history, the common ancestor of trees, ferns, and flowers developed an alternating life cycle--presumably allowing their offspring to float inland and conquer Earth. But on December 16 in Trends in Plant Science, Danish scientists argue that some green algae had been hanging out on land hundreds of millions of years before this adaptation and that land plants actually evolved from terrestrial, not aquatic, algae.
Botanists have suspected this possibility since 1980, but supporters have lacked proof. Now, Carlsberg Laboratory's Jesper Harholt and University of Copenhagen's Øjvind Moestrup and Peter Ulvskov present genetic and morphological evidence that corroborates the theory. Notably, traits that land plants use to survive on land today are well conserved in some species of green algae.
The collaboration began while Harholt and Ulvskov were studying the evolution of the plant cell wall, long considered to be a key adaptation for a terrestrial lifestyle, as it provides body support for plants growing under the influence of gravity.
"We realized that algae have a cell wall that's similarly complex to terrestrial plant cell walls, which seemed peculiar because ancient algae were supposedly growing in water," says Harholt, Science Manager at the Carlsberg Laboratory. "We then started looking for other traits that would support the idea that algae were actually on land before they turned into land plants."