“Organisms green with chlorophyll appeared pretty early in Earth history, diversified, and adapted to oceanic, coastal, and finally terrestrial environments. As this took place, the Earth turned green.” – Joseph E. Armstrong, How the Earth Turned Green
The Earth not only turned green, but the composition of its atmosphere dramatically shifted. Thanks in part to photosynthesis, Earth’s atmosphere went from having virtually no free oxygen to being composed of about 21% oxygen. The increasing availability of oxygen helped facilitate the evolution of more and more diverse forms of life. Had photosynthesis (specifically oxygen-producing photosynthesis) never come about, the Earth would not be anything like it is today.
There are organisms in at least three taxonomic kingdoms that have the ability to photosynthesize: Bacteria, Protista, and Plantae. A book itself could be written about how photosynthesis developed and how it differs among organisms. The important thing to note in a discussion about plants is that the type of photosynthesis that occurs in cyanobacteria is the same type that occurs in the chloroplasts of plants and green algae. Additionally, pigments called chlorophyll are only found in cyanobacteria and the chloroplasts of plants and green algae. As Joseph Armstrong puts it in How the Earth Turned Green, “evidence strongly supports the hypothesis that chloroplasts were free-living photosynthetic bacteria that became cellular slaves within a host cell.”
In Part One, we established that green algae are closely related to plants, and that a subset of green algae colonized the land and evolved into modern day plants. Plants are green because of cyanobacteria via green algae; however, cyanobacteria are not plants, and green algae may or may not be plants depending on your preference. Classification is not nearly as important as determining evolutionary relationships.
So, again, what is a plant? K. J. Willis and J. C. McElwain offer this summary in their book, The Evolution of Plants: “Plants are relatively simple organisms with a common list of basic needs (water, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, some trace elements, plus various biochemical pathways necessary for photosynthesis). This list has remained almost unchanged from the first land plants to the present.” In Part One, we also listed three major features that all plants have in common: multicellularity, cell walls that contain cellulose, and the ability to photosynthesize.
Photosynthesis is a big one, because it means that plants make their own food. They are autotrophs/self-feeders/ producers. This sets them apart from heterotrophs, organisms that consume other organisms in order to obtain energy and other essential nutrients. Plants are at the bottom of the food chain, providing energy and nutrients to all other organisms that either directly or indirectly consume them. In Armstrong’s words:
“Eating and being eaten is a fact of life, a process by which the light energy captured by green organisms is passed through a series of consumers, a food chain, before eventually being lost as heat, which dissipates. Everything else is recycled with the able assistance of decomposers, primarily fungi and microorganisms, heterotrophs who obtain their food from dead organisms or their metabolic wastes. A large part of ecology concerns such trophic or feeding interactions, the energy transfers that result, and the cycling of biogeochemicals, the elements of life.”
Their ability to photosynthesize, among other things, gives plants a prominent role in the world’s ecosystems. Much more will be said about that as we continue, but first there are a few other things about plants worth mentioning.
Plants exhibit modular growth. While animals generally produce all of their body parts early on in life and rarely reproduce new body parts in replacement of lost ones, plants can continue to reproduce and replace body parts. Even at maturity, plants maintain embryonic tissues, which allows them to regenerate body parts as needed. This is one reason why so many plants can be propagated asexually via stem, root, and/or leaf cuttings. Roots can be encouraged to grow from unlikely places, and a whole new plant can be produced as a result.
Plants are generally stationary. Rooted in place, they must obtain everything necessary for life, growth, and reproduction by accessing whatever resources are in their immediate vicinity. Roots search the soil for water and other nutrients, and leaves harvest sunlight and carbon dioxide to make sugars. Relationships are maintained with soil fungi to aid in the search for water and nutrients, but otherwise, plants are largely on their own. Since they cannot run or hide, they must stand and fend for themselves when insects and other herbivores come to devour them. They have adapted a variety of chemical and physical defenses to address this.
Despite being largely immobile during their juvenile and adult phases, plants can actually be incredibly mobile during their embryonic stage (or in other words, as seeds/spores/progules). Employing biotic and abiotic resources, seeds and spores can potentially move miles away from their parent plants, enjoying a freedom of movement they will never know again once they put their roots down.
It is estimated that the total number of plant species on the earth today is around 400,000. (For reference, see this BGCI page and this Kew Gardens page. See The Plant List for up to date plant species names.) The first land plants evolved around 450 million years ago. It wasn’t until around 160 million years ago that the first flowering plants appeared, yet about 90% of the plants in existence today fall within this group. How many tens of thousands of species of plants have existed on Earth throughout history? I don’t think we can say. So many have come and gone, while others have radiated into new species. Exploring life that currently exists on this planet is an enormous pursuit on its own; add to that the exploration of life that once existed, and your pursuits become endless.
At the close of the first chapter of his book, Armstrong highlights eight major historical events that have brought us plants as we know them today: “the origin of life itself, the development of chlorophyll and photosynthesis, the advent of the eukaryotic (nucleated) cell, the development of multicellular organisms, the invasion of land, the development of vascular tissues, the development of seeds, and the development of flowers.” Consider that a brief synopsis of all we have to cover as we continue to tell the story of plants.