As plants adapted to dry land and became independent of the constant presence of water in damp habitats, new organs and structures made their appearance. Early land plants did not grow above a few inches off the ground, and on these low mats, they competed for light. By evolving a shoot and growing taller, individual plants captured more light. Because air offers substantially less support than water, land plants incorporated more rigid molecules in their stems (and later, tree trunks). The evolution of vascular tissue for the distribution of water and solutes was a necessary prerequisite for plants to evolve larger bodies. The vascular system contains xylem and phloem tissues. Xylem conducts water and minerals taken from the soil up to the shoot; phloem transports food derived from photosynthesis throughout the entire plant. The root system that evolved to take up water and minerals also anchored the increasingly taller shoot in the soil.
In land plants, a waxy, waterproof cover called a cuticle coats the aerial parts of the plant: leaves and stems. The cuticle also prevents intake of carbon dioxide needed for the synthesis of carbohydrates through photosynthesis. Stomata, or pores, that open and close to regulate traffic of gases and water vapor therefore appeared in plants as they moved into drier habitats.
Plants cannot avoid predatory animals. Instead, they synthesize a large range of poisonous secondary metabolites: complex organic molecules such as alkaloids, whose noxious smells and unpleasant taste deter animals. These toxic compounds can cause severe diseases and even death.
Additionally, as plants coevolved with animals, sweet and nutritious metabolites were developed to lure animals into providing valuable assistance in dispersing pollen grains, fruit, or seeds. Plants have been coevolving with animal associates for hundreds of millions of years (Figure 14.6).
Evolution IN ACTION
How organisms acquired traits that allow them to colonize new environments, and how the contemporary ecosystem is shaped, are fundamental questions of evolution. Paleobotany addresses these questions by specializing in the study of extinct plants. Paleobotanists analyze specimens retrieved from field studies, reconstituting the morphology of organisms that have long disappeared. They trace the evolution of plants by following the modifications in plant morphology, and shed light on the connection between existing plants by identifying common ancestors that display the same traits. This field seeks to find transitional species that bridge gaps in the path to the development of modern organisms. Fossils are formed when organisms are trapped in sediments or environments where their shapes are preserved (Figure 14.7). Paleobotanists determine the geological age of specimens and the nature of their environment using the geological sediments and fossil organisms surrounding them. The activity requires great care to preserve the integrity of the delicate fossils and the layers in which they are found.
One of the most exciting recent developments in paleobotany is the use of analytical chemistry and molecular biology to study fossils. Preservation of molecular structures requires an environment free of oxygen, since oxidation and degradation of material through the activity of microorganisms depend on the presence of oxygen. One example of the use of analytical chemistry and molecular biology is in the identification of oleanane, a compound that deters pests and which, up to this point, appears to be unique to flowering plants. Oleanane was recovered from sediments dating from the Permian, much earlier than the current dates given for the appearance of the first flowering plants. Fossilized nucleic acids—DNA and RNA—yield the most information. Their sequences are analyzed and compared to those of living and related organisms. Through this analysis, evolutionary relationships can be built for plant lineages.
Some paleobotanists are skeptical of the conclusions drawn from the analysis of molecular fossils. For one, the chemical materials of interest degrade rapidly during initial isolation when exposed to air, as well as in further manipulations. There is always a high risk of contaminating the specimens with extraneous material, mostly from microorganisms. Nevertheless, as technology is refined, the analysis of DNA from fossilized plants will provide invaluable information on the evolution of plants and their adaptation to an ever- changing environment.