The sporophyte of seedless plants is diploid and results from syngamy or the fusion of two gametes (Figure 14.2). The sporophyte bears the sporangia (singular, sporangium), organs that first appeared in the land plants. The term “sporangia” literally means “spore in a vessel,” as it is a reproductive sac that contains spores. Inside the multicellular sporangia, the diploid sporocytes, or mother cells, produce haploid spores by meiosis, which reduces the 2nchromosome number to 1n. The spores are later released by the sporangia and disperse in the environment. Two different types of spores are produced in land plants, resulting in the separation of sexes at different points in the life cycle. Seedless nonvascular plants (more appropriately referred to as “seedless nonvascular plants with a dominant gametophyte phase”) produce only one kind of spore, and are called homosporous. After germinating from a spore, the gametophyte produces both male and female gametangia, usually on the same individual. In contrast, heterosporous plants produce two morphologically different types of spores. The male spores are called microspores because of their smaller size; the comparatively larger megaspores will develop into the female gametophyte. Heterospory is observed in a few seedless vascular plants and in all seed plants.
When the haploid spore germinates, it generates a multicellular gametophyte by mitosis. The gametophyte supports the zygote formed from the fusion of gametes and the resulting young sporophyte or vegetative form, and the cycle begins anew (Figure 14.3 and Figure 14.4).
The spores of seedless plants and the pollen of seed plants are surrounded by thick cell walls containing a tough polymer known as sporopollenin. This substance is characterized by long chains of organic molecules related to fatty acids and carotenoids, and gives most pollen its yellow color. Sporopollenin is unusually resistant to chemical and biological degradation. Its toughness explains the existence of well- preserved fossils of pollen. Sporopollenin was once thought to be an innovation of land plants; however, the green algae Coleochaetes is now known to form spores that contain sporopollenin.
Protection of the embryo is a major requirement for land plants. The vulnerable embryo must be sheltered from desiccation and other environmental hazards. In both seedless and seed plants, the female gametophyte provides nutrition, and in seed plants, the embryo is also protected as it develops into the new generation of sporophyte.