34.3: Seedless Vascular Plants
Seedless Vascular Plants Were the First Tall Plants on Earth
Today, seedless vascular plants are represented by monilophytes and lycophytes. Ferns—the most common seedless vascular plants—are monilophytes. Whisk ferns (and their relatives) and horsetails are also monilophytes. Lycophytes include club mosses, spikemosses, and quillworts—none of which are true mosses.
Unlike nonvascular plants, vascular plants—including seedless vascular plants—have an extensive network of vascular tissue comprised of xylem and phloem. Most seedless vascular plants also have true roots and leaves. Furthermore, the life cycles of seedless vascular plants are dominated by diploid spore-producing sporophytes, rather than gametophytes.
However, like nonvascular plants, seedless vascular plants reproduce with spores rather than seeds. Seedless vascular plants are also typically more reproductively successful in moist environments because their sperm require a film of water to reach the eggs.
The Life Cycle of Seedless Vascular Plants
Like animals, seedless vascular plants (and other plants) alternate between meiosis and fertilization during reproduction. Meiosis is a cell division process that produces haploid cells—which contain one complete set of chromosomes—from a diploid cell—which contains two complete sets of chromosomes. Fertilization, by contrast, produces a diploid cell called a zygote through the fusion of haploid cells called gametes—sperm and eggs.
In most animals, only the diploid stage is multicellular, and gametes are the only haploid cells. Plants, however, alternate between haploid and diploid stages that are both multicellular; this is called alternation of generations. Alternation of generations is a feature of all sexually reproducing plants, but the relative size and prominence of the haploid and diploid stages differ among plants.
In seedless vascular plants (as well as seed plants), the diploid stage of the life cycle—the sporophyte—is dominant. For example, what most people recognize as a fern is the large, independent fern sporophyte. Sporophytes produce haploid cells called spores through meiosis.
A spore can germinate and develop into a gametophyte—the haploid stage of the life cycle—through mitosis. Gametophytes produce egg and sperm cells through mitosis (unlike animals, which produce gametes through meiosis). Most seedless vascular plants produce one type of spore that gives rise to a bisexual gametophyte. The gametophytes are smaller and less structurally complex than the sporophytes, but they can photosynthesize and do not depend on the sporophyte for nourishment or protection.
Egg and sperm cells fuse through fertilization, forming a diploid zygote. The zygote divides through mitosis to generate the familiar, fronded fern sporophyte—continuing the cycle.