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Researchers find closest living relative of first land plants

Some 470 million years ago, the first land plants emerged from prehistoric waters, put down roots in soil and ended up ruling the plant world. But scientists havent been certain about the family history of those pioneer plants.

By studying gene sequences of common fresh water algae, a team of University of Maryland researchers, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) has traced this family tree and identified a group of algae that are the closest living relatives of the first land plants. The scientists have moved a step closer to understanding how land plants evolved and came to dominate the terrestrial biosphere.

What used to be a very short story - land plants evolved from aquatic algae - just became a much more interesting narrative, said James Rodeman, program director in NSFs division of environmental biology. The new details in this part of the Tree of Life will guide research on how photosynthesizing organisms conquered the land.

In a study published in the Dec. 14 issue of the journal Science, Maryland scientist Charles Delwiche and doctoral student Kenneth Karol confirm that the closest living relative of the first land plants is a group of green algae called the Charales, which survives today in fresh water around the world.

Science has long believed that land plants are derived from primeval algae that became adapted to live on land, but we werent sure exactly how this happened, or which living algae were most closely related to land plants, said Delwiche. Its an important part of the Tree of Life that has been unresolved.

Although both the Charales and land plants can be traced back in the fossil record over a period of more than 400 million years, their common ancestor has been extinct for even longer and hasn't been identified in the fossil record.

Our data confirm that land plants and the Charales both evolved from a common anc
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Contact: Cheryl Dybas
cdybas@nsf.gov
703-292-8070
National Science Foundation
13-Dec-2001


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