A new paper from scientists in North America, Europe and China reveals important details about key transitions in the evolution of plant life on our planet.

From strange and exotic algae, mosses, ferns, trees and flowers growing deep in steamy rain forests to the grains and vegetables we eat and the ornamental plants adorning our homes, all plant life on Earth shares more than a billion years of history.

The paper was published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week. Regina Baucom, an assistant professor in the University of Michigan Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, is one of more than 40 authors.

“The 1KP plant transcriptome project has produced an unprecedented number of sequenced transcriptomes, and this paper is one of the first outcomes of the larger project,” said Baucom. “My involvement with this fabulous group of researchers has allowed me to accelerate my own research on weedy plant genomics while at the same time contribute to a broader study on the phylogenetics of land plant evolution.”

Our study generated DNA sequences from a vast number of distantly related plants, and we developed new analysis tools to understand their relationships and the timing of key innovations in plant evolution," said Jim Leebens-Mack, associate professor of plant biology at the University of Georgia and coordinating author of the paper.

As part of the One Thousand Plants (1KP) initiative, the research team is generating millions of gene sequences from plant species sampled from across the green tree of life. By resolving these relationships, the international research team is illuminating the complex processes that allowed ancient water-faring algae to evolve into land plants with adaptations to competition for light, water and soil nutrients.

Lead author Norm Wickett of the Chicago Botanic Garden described the study as "like taking a time machine back to get a glimpse of how ancient algae transitioned into the diverse array of plants we depend on for our food, building materials and critical ecological services."

"When plants colonized the land 450 million years ago, it changed the world forever," said Simon Malcomber, program director in the National Science Foundation's Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the research. "The results of this study offer new insights into the relationships among living plants."

As plants grew and thrived across the plains, valleys and mountains of Earth's landscape, rapid changes in their structures gave rise to a myriad of new species, and the group's data also helps scientists better understand the ancestry of the most common plant lineages, including flowering plants and nonflowering cone-bearing plants such pine trees.

The investigation has also revealed a number of previously unknown molecular characteristics of some plant species that may have applications in medicine and industry.

Michigan News/University of Georgia press release