In seed plants, the evolutionary trend led to a dominant sporophyte generation, in which the larger and more ecologically significant generation for a species is the diploid plant. At the same time, the trend led to a reduction in the size of the gametophyte, from a conspicuous structure to a microscopic cluster of cells enclosed in the tissues of the sporophyte. Lower vascular plants, such as club mosses and ferns, are mostly homosporous (produce only one type of spore). In contrast, all seed plants, or spermatophytes, are heterosporous, forming two types of spores: megaspores (female) and microspores (male). Megaspores develop into female gametophytes that produce eggs, and microspores mature into male gametophytes that generate sperm. Because the gametophytes mature within the spores, they are not free-living, as are the gametophytes of other seedless vascular plants. Heterosporous seedless plants are seen as the evolutionary forerunners of seed plants.
Seeds and pollen—two adaptations to drought—distinguish seed plants from other (seedless) vascular plants. Both adaptations were critical to the colonization of land. Fossils place the earliest distinct seed plants at about 350 million years ago. The earliest reliable record of gymnosperms dates their appearance to the Carboniferous period (359–299 million years ago). Gymnosperms were preceded by the progymnosperms (“first naked seed plants”). This was a transitional group of plants that superficially resembled conifers (“cone bearers”) because they produced wood from the secondary growth of the vascular tissues; however, they still reproduced like ferns, releasing spores to the environment. In the Mesozoic era (251–65.5 million years ago), gymnosperms dominated the landscape. Angiosperms took over by the middle of the Cretaceous period (145.5–65.5 million years ago) in the late Mesozoic era, and have since become the most abundant plant group in most terrestrial biomes.
The two innovative structures of pollen and seed allowed seed plants to break their dependence on water for reproduction and development of the embryo, and to conquer dry land. The pollen grains carry the male gametes of the plant. The small haploid (1n) cells are encased in a protective coat that prevents desiccation (drying out) and mechanical damage. Pollen can travel far from the sporophyte that bore it, spreading the plant’s genes and avoiding competition with other plants. The seed offers the embryo protection, nourishment and a mechanism to maintain dormancy for tens or even thousands of years, allowing it to survive in a harsh environment and ensuring germination when growth conditions are optimal. Seeds allow plants to disperse the next generation through both space and time. With such evolutionary advantages, seed plants have become the most successful and familiar group of plants.