The evolutionary emergence of land plants

Philip C J Donoghue*, C Jill Harrison, Jordi Paps Montserrat, Harald Schneider

*Corresponding author for this work

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

53 Citations (Scopus)
310 Downloads (Pure)


There can be no doubt that early land plant evolution transformed the planet but until recently, how and when this was achieved has been unclear. Coincidence in the first appearance of land plant fossils and formative shifts in atmospheric oxygen and CO2 are an artefact of the paucity of earlier terrestrial rocks. Disentangling the timing of land plant body plan assembly and its impact on global biogeochemical cycles has been precluded by uncertainty concerning the relationships of bryophytes to one another and to the tracheophytes, as well as the timescale over which these events unfolded. New genome and transcriptome sequencing projects, combined with the application of sophisticated phylogenomic modelling methods, have yielded increasing support for the Setaphyta clade of liverworts and mosses, within monophyletic bryophytes. We consider the evolution of anatomy, genes, genomes and of development within this phylogenetic context, concluding that many vascular plant (tracheophytes) novelties were already present in a comparatively complex last common ancestor of living land plants (embryophytes). Molecular clock analyses indicate that embryophytes emerged in a mid-Cambrian to early Ordovician interval, compatible with hypotheses on their role as geoengineers, precipitating early Palaeozoic glaciations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)R1281-R1298
Number of pages18
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number19
Publication statusPublished - 11 Oct 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We are very grateful to Alex Bowles who provided comments on the text and Dianne Edwards, Sandy Hetherington, Silvia Pressel and Charles Wellman for kindly providing images used in this paper. P.C.J.D. is funded by BBSRC (BB/N000919/1; BB/T012773/1), Leverhulme Trust, NERC (NE/P013678/1), and the Moore Foundation; C.J.H. is funded by the Leverhulme Trust (RPG 2018-220); J.P. is funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Elsevier Inc.


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