Life Cycle of a Conifer

Pine trees are conifers (coniferous = cone bearing) and carry both male and female sporophylls on the same mature sporophyte. Therefore, they are monoecious plants. Like all gymnosperms, pines are heterosporous and generate two different types of spores (male microspores and female megaspores). Male and female spores develop in different strobili, with small male cones and larger female cones. In the male cones, or staminate cones, the microsporocytes undergo meiosis and the resultant haploid microspores give rise to male gametophytes or “pollen grains” by mitosis. Each pollen grain consists of just a few haploid cells enclosed in a tough wall reinforced with sporopollenin. In the spring, large amounts of yellow pollen are released and carried by the wind. Some gametophytes will land on a female cone. Pollination is defined as the initiation of pollen tube growth. The pollen tube develops slowly, and the generative cell in the pollen grain produces two haploid sperm or generative nuclei by mitosis. At fertilization, one of the haploid sperm nuclei will unite with the haploid nucleus of an egg cell.

Female cones, or ovulate cones, contain two ovules per scale. Each ovule has a narrow passage that opens near the base of the sporophyll. This passage is the micropyle, through which a pollen tube will later grow. One megaspore mother cell, or megasporocyte, undergoes meiosis in each ovule. Three of the four cells break down; only a single surviving cell will develop into a female multicellular gametophyte, which encloses archegonia (an archegonium is a reproductive organ that contains a single large egg). As the female gametophyte begins to develop, a sticky pollination drop traps windblown pollen grains near the opening of the micropyle. A pollen tube is formed and grows toward the developing gametophyte. One of the generative or sperm nuclei from the pollen tube will enter the egg and fuse with the egg nucleus as the egg matures. Upon fertilization, the diploid egg will give rise to the embryo, which is enclosed in a seed coat of tissue from the parent plant. Although several eggs may be formed and even fertilized, there is usually a single surviving embryo in each ovule. Fertilization and seed development is a long process in pine trees: it may take up to two years after pollination. The seed that is formed contains three generations of tissues: the seed coat that originates from the sporophyte tissue, the gametophyte tissue that will provide nutrients, and the embryo itself.

Figure illustrates the life cycle of a conifer. The sporophyte (2n) phase is the longest phase in the life of a gymnosperm. The gametophytes (1n)—produced by microspores and megaspores—are reduced in size. It may take more than a year between pollination and fertilization while the pollen tube grows towards the growing female gametophyte (1n), which develops from a single megaspore. The slow growth of the pollen tube allows the female gametophyte time to produce eggs (1n).

Art Connection

The conifer life cycle begins with a mature tree, which is called a sporophyte and is diploid (2n). The tree produces male cones in the lower branches, and female cones in the upper branches. The male cones produce pollen grains that contain two generative (sperm) nuclei and a tube nucleus. When the pollen lands on a female scale, a pollen tube grows toward the female gametophyte, which consists of an ovule containing the megaspore. Upon fertilization, a diploid zygote forms. The resulting seeds are dispersed, and grow into a mature tree, ending the cycle.
Conifer life cycle. This image shows the life cycle of a conifer. Pollen from male cones blows up into upper branches, where it fertilizes female cones. The megaspore shown in the image develops into the female gametophyte as the pollen tube slowly grows toward it, eventually fusing with the egg and delivering a male nucleus, which combines with the female nucleus of the mature egg.

At what stage does the diploid zygote form?

  1. when the female cone begins to bud from the tree
  2. at fertilization
  3. when the seeds drop from the tree
  4. when the pollen tube begins to grow

Link to Learning

Watch this video to see the process of seed production in gymnosperms.

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