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The Evolution of Plants and Fungi: Characteristics & Evolutionary History

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  • 0:01 Characteristics of…
  • 1:28 Evolution of Plants
  • 3:12 Evolution of Fungus
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Danielle Weber

Danielle teaches high school science and has an master's degree in science education.

In early classification systems, plants and fungi were grouped together. While there are some similarities between these two kingdoms, there are some key differences that we will explore.

Characteristics of Fungi and Plants

Both the plant and fungus kingdoms have some common characteristics. First, they are both eukaryotic, meaning they belong to the Eukarya domain and their cells contain a nucleus and membrane-bound organelles. Both of them also have cell walls, are stationary, and are typically multicellular, which means they are made of multiple cells. Plants and fungi used to be grouped together but are no longer because of distinctive differences between these two groups.

Plants, such as trees, flowers, and ferns, are eukaryotic, non-motile organisms that use photosynthesis to get energy. Remember that photosynthesis is a process that converts sunlight and carbon dioxide into oxygen and sugar. While both plants and fungi have cell walls, the cell walls in plants are made of cellulose. Fungus, such as mushrooms, yeast, and mold, are eukaryotic, non-motile organisms that are heterotrophic, which means that they must take in nutrients for energy. They have cell walls made of chitin. We can see these differences highlighted in the comparison here:

Different characteristics of plants and fungi
comparison between fungi and plants

While both are eukaryotic and don't move, plants are autotrophic - making their own energy - and have cell walls made of cellulose, but fungi are heterotrophic - taking in food for energy - and have cell walls made of chitin.

Evolution of Plants

This plant-like protist was the early ancestor of plants.
Plant Like Protist

Now that we know some basics of plants, let's look at how these organisms have changed over time. The ancestors of plants are most likely plant-like protists, which are small, unicellular, aquatic eukaryotes capable of photosynthesis. These organisms gave rise to land plants about 475 million years ago. The first land plants were simple and did not contain vascular tissue. This meant that they were not able to move food and water from one part of their structure to another. Examples of these nonvascular plants are seen in liverworts, hornworts, and mosses. All three groups are small, simple, and must live in moist environments.

Around 420 million years ago, a great advance in plant structure evolved - vascular tissues. The two types of vascular tissue - xylem and phloem - move water and food throughout plants. This development allowed plants to expand where they could live - they no longer needed to be in only moist environments. It also allowed them to grow bigger. This adaptation was so advantageous that more than 90% of all plant species are vascular. Examples of vascular plants include ferns and horsetails.

Cross section of a seed
Seed Cross Section

The third major evolutionary development in plants occurred around 360 million years ago. Plants developed seeds. These seeds are used for reproduction and provide several advantages over plants that do not have seeds, including the ability for offspring to travel far distances from their parents, protection from the elements, and the ability to remain dormant until the time is just right to grow. Examples of plants that produce seeds are conifers, daffodils, and apple trees.

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