The first plants to colonize land were most likely related to the ancestors of modern day mosses (bryophytes), which are thought to have appeared about 500 million years ago. They were followed by liverworts (also bryophytes) and primitive vascular plants—the pterophytes—from which modern ferns are descended. The life cycle of bryophytes and pterophytes is characterized by the alternation of generations, which is also exhibited in the gymnosperms and angiosperms. However, what sets bryophytes and pterophytes apart from gymnosperms and angiosperms is their reproductive requirement for water. The completion of the bryophyte and pterophyte life cycle requires water because the male gametophyte releases flagellated sperm, which must swim to reach and fertilize the female gamete or egg. After fertilization, the zygote undergoes cellular division and grows into a diploid sporophyte, which in turn will form sporangia or "spore vessels." In the sporangia, mother cells undergo meiosis and produce the haploid spores. Release of spores in a suitable environment will lead to germination and a new generation of gametophytes.
In seed plants, the evolutionary trend led to a dominant sporophyte generation accompanied by a corresponding reduction in the size of the gametophyte from a conspicuous structure to a microscopic cluster of cells enclosed in the tissues of the sporophyte. Whereas lower vascular plants, such as club mosses and ferns, are mostly homosporous (producing only one type of spore), all seed plants, or spermatophytes, are heterosporous, producing 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.
Ancestral heterosporous seedless plants, represented by modern-day plants such as the spike moss Selaginella, are seen as the evolutionary forerunners of seed plants. In the life cycle of Selaginella, both male and female sporangia develop within the same stem-like strobilus. In each male sporangium, multiple microspores are produced by meiosis. Each microspore produces a small antheridium contained within a spore case. As it develops it is released from the strobilus, and a number of flagellated sperm are produced that then leave the spore case. In the female sporangium, a single megaspore mother cell undergoes meiosis to produce four megaspores. Gametophytes develop within each megaspore, consisting of a mass of tissue that will later nourish the embryo and a few archegonia. The female gametophyte may remain within remnants of the spore wall in the megasporangium until after fertilization has occurred and the embryo begins to develop. This combination of an embryo and nutritional cells is a little different from the organization of a seed, since the nutritive endosperm in a seed is formed from a single cell rather than multiple cells.
Both seeds and pollen distinguish seed plants from seedless vascular plants. These innovative structures allowed seed plants to reduce or eliminate their dependence on water for gamete fertilization and development of the embryo, and to conquer dry land. Pollen grains are male gametophytes, which contain the sperm (gametes) of the plant. The small haploid (1n) cells are encased in a protective coat that prevents desiccation (drying out) and mechanical damage. Pollen grains can travel far from their original sporophyte, spreading the plant’s genes. Seeds offer the embryo protection, nourishment, and a mechanism to maintain dormancy for tens or even thousands of years, ensuring that germination can occur when growth conditions are optimal. Seeds therefore 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.
Both adaptations expanded the colonization of land begun by the bryophytes and their ancestors. Fossils place the earliest distinct seed plants at about 350 million years ago. The first reliable record of gymnosperms dates their appearance to the Pennsylvanian period, about 319 million years ago (Figure). Gymnosperms were preceded by progymnosperms, the first naked seed plants, which arose about 380 million years ago. Progymnosperms were 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 into the environment. At least some species were heterosporous. Progymnosperms, like the extinct Archaeopteris (not to be confused with the ancient bird Archaeopteryx), dominated the forests of the late Devonian period. However, by the early (Triassic, c. 240 MYA) and middle (Jurassic, c. 205 MYA) Mesozoic era, the landscape was dominated by the true gymnosperms. Angiosperms surpassed gymnosperms by the middle of the Cretaceous (c. 100 MYA) in the late Mesozoic era, and today are the most abundant and biologically diverse plant group in most terrestrial biomes.