Perspective: the origin of flowering plants and their reproductive biology--a tale of two phylogenies

Evolution. 2001 Feb;55(2):217-31. doi: 10.1111/j.0014-3820.2001.tb01288.x.


Recently, two areas of plant phylogeny have developed in ways that could not have been anticipated, even a few years ago. Among extant seed plants, new phylogenetic hypotheses suggest that Gnetales, a group of nonflowering seed plants widely hypothesized to be the closest extant relatives of angiosperms, may be less closely related to angiosperms than was believed. In addition, recent phylogenetic analyses of angiosperms have, for the first time, clearly identified the earliest lineages of flowering plants: Amborella, Nymphaeales, and a clade that includes Illiciales/ Trimeniaceae/Austrobaileyaceae. Together, the new seed plant and angiosperm phylogenetic hypotheses have major implications for interpretation of homology and character evolution associated with the origin and early history of flowering plants. As an example of the complex and often unpredictable interplay of phylogenetic and comparative biology, we analyze the evolution of double fertilization, a process that forms a diploid embryo and a triploid endosperm, the embryo-nourishing tissue unique to flowering plants. We demonstrate how the new phylogenetic hypotheses for seed plants and angiosperms can significantly alter previous interpretations of evolutionary homology and firmly entrenched assumptions about what is synapomorphic of flowering plants. In the case of endosperm, a solution to the century-old question of its potential homology with an embryo or a female gametophyte (the haploid egg-producing generation within the life cycle of a seed plant) remains complex and elusive. Too little is known of the comparative reproductive biology of extant nonflowering seed plants (Gnetales, conifers, cycads, and Ginkgo) to analyze definitively the potential homology of endosperm with antecedent structures. Remarkably, the new angiosperm phylogenies reveal that a second fertilization event to yield a biparental endosperm, long assumed to be an important synapomorphy of flowering plants, cannot be conclusively resolved as ancestral for flowering plants. Although substantive progress has been made in the analysis of phylogenetic relationships of seed plants and angiosperms, these efforts have not been matched by comparable levels of activity in comparative biology. The consequence of inadequate comparative biological information in an age of phylogenetic biology is a severe limitation on the potential to reconstruct key evolutionary historical events.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Magnoliopsida* / classification
  • Phylogeny*
  • Reproduction / physiology