Evolution of Plant Rooting Systems

Abstract

The evolution of rooting systems was essential for the diversification of land plants enabling plants to uptake essential water and nutrients and providing stable anchorage for ever‐larger herbaceous plants and subsequently the advent of trees. To understand how roots evolved, it is essential to combine studies of both fossil and living plants, and by doing this, we can identify three major steps in rooting system evolution. First, during land plant evolution, there was a switch between the primary rooting systems of plants from rhizoid‐based systems developing on the gametophyte stage of the life cycle, to specialised roots that developed on the sporophyte stage. Second, roots evolved independently in the two major lineages of vascular plants, lycophytes and euphyllophytes. Third, root evolution in the lycophyte lineage occurred in a gradual fashion from rhizoid‐based systems, through specialised rooting axes finally to roots.

Key Concepts

  • The evolution of roots was essential for the evolution of plant life and also made major changes to the Earth system.
  • Early diverging bryophytes develop a rhizoid‐based rooting system on their free‐living gametophyte stage.
  • The common ancestor of vascular plants is predicted to develop a rhizoid‐based rooting system on both the sporophyte and gametophyte generation.
  • Plant roots evolved independently in the lycophytes and euphyllophyte lineage.
  • Exceptionally well‐preserved fossils from the 407 million‐year‐old Rhynie chert shed light on the stepwise evolution of plant roots in the lycophyte lineages.

Keywords: roots; rooting systems; rhizoids; fossil plants; evolution; land plants

Figure 1. Gametophyte rhizoid‐based rooting systems of bryophytes. (a) Photograph of the gametophyte thallus of the liverwort Marchantia polymorpha, showing the mass of hair‐like rhizoids that anchor it to the sediment. (b) Higher magnification of the rhizoids of M. polymorpha showing their tubular hair‐like structure. Scale bars (a) 1 cm, (b) 100 μm. Courtesy of Anna Thamm.
Figure 2. Gametophyte and sporophyte rhizoids of the common ancestor of vascular plants. Reconstruction of the sporophyte (2n) and gametophyte (n) of the early‐diverging vascular plant, Rhynia gwynne‐vaughanii, with the positions of rhizoids highlighted with blue arrowheads. Right, example of the horizontal branching axis of the sporophyte of R. gwynne‐vaughanii with rhizoids developing from the lower surface (blue arrowhead), preserved in the 407‐million‐year‐old Rhynie chert. Scale bar 500 μm. Reconstructions of the sporophyte based on Kenrick and Crane , and the gametophyte (Kerp et al., ).
Figure 3. The stepwise origin of lycophyte roots. Simplified cladogram with cartoons of the rooting system types of the major groups of vascular plants. Yellow, rhizoid‐based rooting systems, orange, specialised rooting axes lacking root caps of Asteroxylon mackiei, red, roots developing from a root meristem with root cap. Extinct taxa highlight with †.
Figure 4. Endogenous lateral root branching of euphyllophytes. (a) Parent root of the monilophyte Ceratopteris richardii giving rise to numerous lateral roots. (b) A magnified image of the development of a lateral root that had recently emerged from the monilophyte Ceratopteris richardii. (c) A lateral root that has just broken through the epidermis of a parent root in the seed plant Arabidopsis thaliana. Scale bars (a) 5 mm, (b) 200 μm, (c) 50 μm. (a, b) Courtesy of Andrew Plackett, (c) Courtesy of Flora Hetherington.
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Further Reading

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Hetherington, Alexander J(Nov 2019) Evolution of Plant Rooting Systems. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0028341]