Case not closed: the mystery of the origin of the carpel

Beatriz Gonçalves*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article (Academic Journal)peer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


The carpel is a fascinating structure that plays a critical role in flowering plant reproduction and contributed greatly to the evolutionary success and diversification of flowering plants. The remarkable feature of the carpel is that it is a closed structure that envelopes the ovules and after fertilization develops into the fruit which protects, helps disperse, and supports seed development into a new plant. Nearly all plant-based foods are either derived from a flowering plant or are a direct product of the carpel. Given its importance it’s no surprise that plant and evolutionary biologists have been trying to explain the origin of the carpel for a long time. Before carpel evolution seeds were produced on open leaf-like structures that are exposed to the environment. When the carpel evolved in the stem lineage of flowering plants, seeds became protected within its closed structure. The evolutionary transition from that open precursor to the closed carpel remains one of the greatest mysteries of plant evolution. In recent years, we have begun to complete a picture of what the first carpels might have looked like. On the other hand, there are still many gaps in our understanding of what the precursor of the carpel looked like and what changes to its developmental mechanisms allowed for this evolutionary transition. This review aims to present an overview of existing theories of carpel evolution with a particular emphasis on those that account for the structures that preceded the carpel and/or present testable developmental hypotheses. In the second part insights from the development and evolution of diverse plant organs are gathered to build a developmental hypothesis for the evolutionary transition from a hypothesized laminar open structure to the closed structure of the carpel.

Original languageEnglish
Article number14
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 15 Dec 2021

Bibliographical note

I'd like to thank Jill Harrison and editors for the opportunity to write this review. Thanks also to two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments which helped improve the manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Author(s).


  • Angiosperms
  • Carpel
  • Flowering plants
  • Laminar growth
  • Morphogenesis
  • Patterning
  • Plant evolution


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