Skip to content

The Interrelationships of Land Plants and the Nature of the Ancestral Embryophyte

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)733-745.e2
Number of pages16
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number5
Early online date15 Feb 2018
DateAccepted/In press - 22 Jan 2018
DateE-pub ahead of print - 15 Feb 2018
DatePublished (current) - 5 Mar 2018


The evolutionary emergence of land plant body plans transformed the planet. However, our understanding of this formative episode is mired in the uncertainty associated with the phylogenetic relationships among bryophytes (hornworts, liverworts, and mosses) and tracheophytes (vascular plants). Here we attempt to clarify this problem by analyzing a large transcriptomic dataset with models that allow for compositional heterogeneity between sites. Zygnematophyceae is resolved as sister to land plants, but we obtain several distinct relationships between bryophytes and tracheophytes. Concatenated sequence analyses that can explicitly accommodate site-specific compositional heterogeneity give more support for a mosses-liverworts clade, “Setaphyta,” as the sister to all other land plants, and weak support for hornworts as the sister to all other land plants. Bryophyte monophyly is supported by gene concatenation analyses using models explicitly accommodating lineage-specific compositional heterogeneity and analyses of gene trees. Both maximum-likelihood analyses that compare the fit of each gene tree to proposed species trees and Bayesian supertree estimation based on gene trees support bryophyte monophyly. Of the 15 distinct rooted relationships for embryophytes, we reject all but three hypotheses, which differ only in the position of hornworts. Our results imply that the ancestral embryophyte was more complex than has been envisaged based on topologies recognizing liverworts as the sister lineage to all other embryophytes. This requires many phenotypic character losses and transformations in the liverwort lineage, diminishes inconsistency between phylogeny and the fossil record, and prompts re-evaluation of the phylogenetic affinity of early land plant fossils, the majority of which are considered stem tracheophytes. Puttick et al. resolve a “Setaphyta” clade uniting liverworts and mosses and support for bryophyte monophyly. Their results indicate that the ancestral land plant was more complex than has been envisaged based on phylogenies recognizing liverworts as the sister lineage to all other embryophytes.

    Research areas

  • Bryophyta, gene trees, land plants, phylogeny, plants, Setaphyta, Tracheophyta

Download statistics

No data available



  • Full-text PDF (final published version)

    Rights statement: This is the final published version of the article (version of record). It first appeared online via Cell Press at . Please refer to any applicable terms of use of the publisher.

    Proof, 2.84 MB, PDF document

    Licence: CC BY

  • Full-text PDF (final published version)

    Final published version, 2.96 MB, PDF document

    Licence: CC BY


View research connections

Related faculties, schools or groups