The Origin of Plants: Genomes, rocks, and biogeochemical cycles.

Lead Research Organisation: Natural History Museum
Department Name: Life Sciences


There can be no doubt that early land plant evolution transformed the planet but how our knowledge of how this happened is in disarray. The clear coincidence in the first appearance of land plant fossils and formative shifts in atmospheric oxygen and CO2 is an artefact of the absence of earlier terrestrial rocks, and disentangling the timing of land plant bodyplan assembly and its impact on global biogeochemical cycles requires a new understanding of early land plant evolution and the timescale over which it was effected.

Early life on land was mostly microbial, but sometime between about 700 million and 420 million years ago plants moved from water onto land. The timeframe is controversial and as currently understood it is very broad, but a more precise knowledge of the events is key to linking the early evolution of plant life to major environmental change. Ambiguity and uncertainty arise because the principal lines of evidence conflict. Fossils, notably plant microfossils (spores), point to colonization beginning about 470 Ma (million years ago), but the affinities of the early spore producers are controversial. Macrofossils (plant stems, multicellular organ systems, etc) indicate a later colonization, beginning about 430 Ma. Calibrated molecular phylogenies - studies of the timing of divergence of living plant lineages based on molecular sequence data, where the rate of mutation is calibrated to time using fossils - point to an origin and early evolution of life on land that may have begun during the Late Neoproterozoic, long predating the fossil evidence. Recent research has identified difficulties with both molecular phylogenetic and palaeontological approaches, which our proposed research program will address.

We have assembled a multidisciplinary team to conduct research to remedy these shortcomings. We will establish a robust genealogy for living plant lineages based on a genome-scale amount of molecular sequence data (~1,000s genes and, therefore, ~1,000,000s nucleotides). The genealogy will be linked to time by including important and exceptionally preserved fossil species. These will be correctly placed through detailed characterization of their anatomy using state of the art Synchrotron Computed Tomography, a novel approach that we have recently shown to provide valuable new data in a recent proof of concept study. Sedimentary regime is known to affect the age estimate given by fossils, so we will also apply new methods develop by us to assess and to correct for this. Together, these approaches will enable us to develop a robust phylogeny calibrated with greater precision to time, which we will use to investigate the evolutionary assembly of key land plant organs and tissue systems (e.g., roots, stomata, vascular tissue, leaves) and their impact on major biogeochemical cycles. Finally, we will we will explore the implications of our plant evolutionary timescale within a leading computer model of global biogeochemical cycling (GENIE). This will enable us to generate predictions for levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and of organic carbon productivity that we will test against geological observations. Ultimately, we will establish a new scenario for the timing and tempo of early land plant evolution, the assembly of land plant bodyplans, and a new understanding of the effect of this episode upon the evolution of the Earth System.

Planned Impact

The major beneficiaries of this research are academic users, secondary school children (GCSE, A-Level Stage), museum visitors, and the amateur naturalist community. We will reach these diverse audiences through a combination of tailored standard academic practices and innovative means of communication led by experts in science communication at one of our major national museums. The process and results of our research will significantly enhance The Natural History Museum's Science Communication Programme, providing direct educational benefits to secondary school students and cultural benefits to the general public.

Because of the subject matter and the multidisciplinary nature of the proposed research, our results will be of interest to a diverse scientific audience, including both Life Scientists (systematic botanists, molecular systematists, evolutionary and developmental biologists) and Earth Scientists (palaeobotanists, micropalaeontologists, sedimentary geologists, geochemists). The results, novel data and methods in our Time Tree project are relevant to the former, whereas the latter will be most interested in our analyses of the Rock Record. Both groups as well as (palaeo-)climatologists will be interested in the synthesis, which is concerned with how the geochemical carbon cycle is best calibrated in light of a revised time scale for key events in land plant evolution (e.g., rates of carbon sequestration, weathering of surface rocks, soil development). New datasets will be made publicly available via the TimeTree project, DRYAD, TreeBASE and The Paleobiology Database. Results will be disseminated through the scientific press and at scientific meetings, and we will target both Earth and Life Science outlets. Major results will be communicated through the press office at all three partner institutions.

Schools and museum visitors are identified as the major wider beneficiaries, because our central question involves a key event in the history of life. The story of the earliest life on land is accessible to students and to the broader public, and it provides a compelling springboard for showing how scientists approach studying evolution as a process and its impact on the natural environment. Schools and public engagement are therefore a major focus of our Impact Plan. We will draw on expertise in science communication, facilities, and the current diverse programme plan in place at The Natural History Museum. We will be working directly with learning professionals who engage with policy makers on schools policy and UK government public engagement policy.

The Natural History Museum attracts some 150,000 school visitors each year, 25% of whom participate in formal activities. Under the guidance of professional science educators, we (Investigators, PDRAs) will contribute to curriculum linked activities already in place such as "How Science Works", "Science Focus", "A-level Biology Days", and the "Earth Science Fair" for science teachers and school children. PDRAs will participate in the Research Councils' "Researcher in Residence" school program to reinforce their science communication skills developed in the museum and to bring real working science into the classroom. School children will have the opportunity to contribute directly to our data by collecting plants in the UK, which will be used in molecular labwork.
Museum public and amateur naturalists will be engaged in several ways. We will communicate (onsite and remotely via webcam) through our "Nature Live" series presentations at The Natural History Museum and through our Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, which plays a key role in supporting networks of societies and other partners working in the field of natural history across the UK.


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Description (1) Employing a phylogenomic dataset we reinvestigated the relationships of the four main lineages of land plants. The results provided evidence in support for the notion that liverworts and mosses form a monophyllum instead of a grade. This is now published in the journal Current Biology (Puttick et al. 2018).
(2) Employing the assembled phylogenetic dataset combined with a revised dataset of fossil taxa to constrain the time tree estimated based on mutation events, we confirmed the origin of the four land plant predates the estimates obtained by fossil evidence alone but do not data back as some earlier studies suggested. This part is now published in PNAS (Morris et al. 2018).
(3) We finalised the component on the modelling of the carbon cycles in the early stages of land plant diversification. The publications are in preparations.
Exploitation Route The results will provide other researchers with a dated phylogenetic framework to reconstruct the evolutionary history of land plants and other organisms occurring in land plant dominated habitats.
Sectors Environment



Museums and Collections


Description We carried out the planning for getting our impact plan delivered in2018. Some efforts were taken to incorporate the findings of the proposal into the redesigned exhibitions in the central hall of the NHM opened in 2017. This part of the impact plan has been achieved. The next step is the usage of the newly published funding into the communication with the general public using the platforms provided by the NHM. Findings were communicated to the general public during European Researchers' Night 'World Wild Webs: Our Interconnected Planet at NHM and through other platforms e.g. The Linnean Society of London online evening lecture 'Key land plant innovations in bryophytes', September 2020
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections,Other
Impact Types Cultural

Description Expert group late Triassic fossil deposits Guangzhou
Geographic Reach Asia 
Policy Influence Type Membership of a guideline committee
Description 1000 Talent Plan - Recruitment Program for Foreign Expert
Amount ¥6,000,000 (CNY)
Organisation Government of China 
Sector Public
Country China
Start 03/2018 
End 04/2023
Description Benjamin Meager Visiting Professorship
Amount £2,800 (GBP)
Organisation University of Bristol 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2017 
End 12/2017
Title Data from: Testing the molecular clock using mechanistic models of fossil preservation and molecular evolution 
Description 10.5523/bris.1sbjm4pgw8x992sforn4f0idos 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact This repository contains simulated data and Bayesian MCMC output from *Testing the molecular clock using mechanistic models of fossil preservation and molecular evolution* by Rachel CM Warnock, Ziheng Yang and Philip CJ Donoghue. (2017) **Proc. R. Soc. B** 284 (1857). This data is associated with the following paper: This data is also associated with code available on dryad: Date made available16 Aug 2017 Publisher University of Bristol 
Description EMBO Workshop, Lisbon 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Oral presentation 'The interrelationships of land plants and the nature of the ancestral embryophyte' highlighting the finding of the project
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Talk to the Hastings and District Geological Society (Apr 14, 2019). 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Presentation: : Before roots, shoots and leaves: the early evolution of plan
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Talk to the Hertfordshire Geological Society (Oct 12, 2017). 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact A presentation and discussion on 'The evolution of land plants: ecological context and geochemical implications'
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description Talk to the Kew Mutual Improvement Society (Dec 4, 2017). 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Title: Before roots, shoots and leaves: the early evolution of plants.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
Description • IAB/IMoss Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Keynote presentation 'Key land plant innovations in bryophytes: considerations on homology and evolution' highlighting the findings of the project to the international bryological research community
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019