Model Plants for Understanding Evolution


Plants are a hugely diverse group of organisms, including both land plants and aquatic algae, which inhabit a wide range of ecological niches across the planet. All plants arose from a single common ancestor and underwent a diversification that has shaped the earth's atmosphere and climate. One of the most important evolutionary transitions in the earth's history was the transition of plants to land. To understand how plants have evolved to possess such diversity of form, function and habitat requires in‐depth knowledge and comparison of plant development and physiology from a wide range of representative species. There are several key ‘traditional’ model organisms that have helped us understand plant evolution to date. However, there are significant gaps in our knowledge due to under‐representation in some parts of the green phylogenetic tree. The time is right to start filling these gaps using new and ‘up‐and‐coming’ green model organisms.

Key Concepts

  • Plants are a very diverse group of organisms that include both aquatic algae and land plants.
  • Land plants arose nearly half a billion years ago, while flowering plants arose more recently.
  • Model organisms are assumed to be representative of the biology of a larger group of organisms e.g. eukaryotes, plants and flowering plants.
  • Most plant model organisms are currently land plants, in particular flowering plants.
  • To understand plant evolution, we need better representation by model organisms within algae and non‐flowering plants.
  • With advances in genome sequencing, the challenge is now to find the most experimentally tractable plants to become new model organisms.

Keywords: land plants; algae; evolution; development; physiology

Figure 1. Simplified overview of Archeplastida, or plants. An ancestral eukaryotic cell engulfed a cyanobacterium approximately 1.6 billion years ago and gave rise to several lineages. The earliest evolving lineage was likely the Glaucophyta, a group of relatively uncommon unicellular freshwater algae. The Rhodophyta (red algae) were also early evolving, and are largely marine multicellular organisms. Green plants, or Viridiplantae, are composed of two clades, the Chlorophyta (comprising several groups of mainly marine algae) and the Streptophyta, namely Charophytes (largely freshwater algae) and the land plants. The land plants, from where most of our ‘green’ model organisms currently come, make up only one branch of the greater plant lineage. Based on Leliaert et al. (). Numbers of completely sequenced (published) genomes to date in each lineage are shown.
Figure 2. Schematic representation of land plant phylogeny with representative species. The earliest evolving land plants around 470 million years ago (MYA) were the bryophytes, small nonvascular plants falling into three groups: liverworts, mosses and hornworts. The earliest evolving vascular plants were lycophytes, followed by ferns. Evolution of the seed plants (spermatophytes) gave rise to gymnosperms and then angiosperms: the monocots and dicots diverged around 150 MYA. Images from top to bottom: the liverwort Marchantia polymorpha (Image from Younousse Saidi); the model moss Physcomitrella patens (Image from Younousse Saidi); the hornwort Anthoceros agrestis (Image from Eftychios Frangedakis); the lycophyte Selaginella kraussiana (Image from Younousse Saidi); a sporophyte of the emerging model fern Ceratopteris richardtii (Image from Andrew Plackett); the gymnosperm Araucaria araucana (monkey puzzle, a conifer, Image from Sue Bradshaw); the model monocot flowering plant Oryza sativa (rice, a grass, Image from Eugenio Sanchez‐Moran); the model dicot flowering plant Arabidopsis thaliana (mouse ear cress, Image from Eugenio Sanchez‐Moran). Numbers of sequenced genomes in each lineage are shown.
Figure 3. The model moss Physcomitrella patens. (a) Leafy haploid gametophyte plant bearing a mature diploid sporophyte (brown) containing haploid spores. (b) Protonemal, filamentous tissues growing in sterile culture on a petri dish. (c) Large sterile liquid culture of Physcomitrella tissue growing in a bioreactor. (d) Transgenic leafy Physcomitrella tissue expressing green fluorescent protein in both the nucleus and the cytosol. Images from Younousse Saidi.
Figure 4. Some emerging model plant systems. (a) The green alga Ulva mutabilis slender mutant, a naturally occurring mutant, ideal as a model organism (Wichard et al., ). Image from Ralf Kessler and Thomas Wichard. (b) Ectocarpus siliculosus, a brown alga from a separate eukaryotic lineage to plants, but sharing morphological and adaptive characteristics with red and green algae. Image from Benedicte Charrier. (c) A dissected leaf of Cardemine hirsuta (Images from Angela Hay) compared to (d) single leaf of Arabidopsis thaliana. Scale bars, 0.5 cm. Images from Angela Hay.


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Further Reading

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Coates, Juliet C(Jun 2016) Model Plants for Understanding Evolution. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0023749]