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There are two general types of rooting systems in extant land plants: gametophyte rhizoids and sporophyte root axes. These structures carry out the rooting function in the free-living stage of almost all land plant gametophytes and sporophytes, respectively. Extant vascular plants develop a dominant, free-living sporophyte on which roots form, with the exception of a small number of taxa that have secondarily lost roots. However, fossil evidence indicates that early vascular plants did not develop sporophyte roots. We propose that the common ancestor of vascular plants developed a unique rooting system-rhizoidal sporophyte axes. Here we present a synthesis and reinterpretation of the rootless sporophytes of Horneophyton lignieri, Aglaophyton majus, Rhynia gwynne-vaughanii and Nothia aphylla preserved in the Rhynie chert. We show that the sporophyte rooting structures of all four plants comprised regions of plagiotropic (horizontal) axes that developed unicellular rhizoids on their underside. These regions of axes with rhizoids developed bilateral symmetry making them distinct from the other regions which were radially symmetrical. We hypothesize that rhizoidal sporophyte axes constituted the rooting structures in the common ancestor of vascular plants because the phylogenetic positions of these plants span the origin of the vascular lineage.This article is part of a discussion meeting issue 'The Rhynie cherts: our earliest terrestrial ecosystem revisited'.

Original publication




Journal article


Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci

Publication Date





Rhynie chert, palaeobotany, rhizoidal sporophyte axes, root, root evolution