The evolution of vegetative desiccation tolerance in land plants

Melvin J. Oliver, Zoltán Tuba, Brent D. Mishler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

273 Citations (Scopus)


Vegetative desiccation tolerance is a widespread but uncommon occurrence in the plant kingdom generally. The majority of vegetative desiccation-tolerant plants are found in the less complex clades that constitute the algae, lichens and bryophytes. However, within the larger and more complex groups of vascular land plants there are some 60 to 70 species of ferns and fern allies, and approximately 60 species of angiosperms that exhibit some degree of vegetative desiccation tolerance. In this report we analyze the evidence for the differing mechanisms of desiccation tolerance in different plants, including differences in cellular protection and cellular repair, and couple this evidence with a phylogenetic framework to generate a working hypothesis as to the evolution of desiccation tolerance in land plants. We hypothesize that the initial evolution of vegetative desiccation tolerance was a crucial step in the colonization of the land by primitive plants from an origin in fresh water. The primitive mechanism of tolerance probably involved constitutive cellular protection coupled with active cellular repair, similar to that described for modern day desiccation-tolerant bryophytes. As plant species evolved, vegetative desiccation tolerance was lost as increased growth rates, structural and morphological complexity, and mechanisms that conserve water within the plant and maintain efficient carbon fixation were selected for. Genes that had evolved for cellular protection and repair were, in all likelihood, recruited for different but related processes such as response to water stress and the desiccation tolerance of reproductive propagules. We thus hypothesize that the mechanism of desiccation tolerance exhibited in seeds, a developmentally induced cellular protection system, evolved from the primitive form of vegetative desiccation tolerance. Once established in seeds, this system became available for induction in vegetative tissues by environmental cues related to drying. The more recent, modified vegetative desiccation tolerance mechanism in angiosperms evolved from that programmed into seed development as species spread into very arid environments. Most recently, certain desiccation-tolerant monocots evolved the strategy of poikilochlorophylly to survive and compete in marginal habitats with variability in water availability.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)85-100
Number of pages16
JournalPlant Ecology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Dec 1 2000


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology
  • Plant Science

Cite this