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Keywords:

  • diploid;
  • genetic drift;
  • haploid;
  • metabolism;
  • natural selection;
  • nucleotide;
  • substitution

Abstract

The evolutionary potential of bryophytes (mosses, liverworts and hornworts) has been debated for decades. Fossil record and biogeographical distribution patterns suggest very slow morphological evolution and the retainment of several ancient traits since the split with vascular plants some 450 million years ago. Many have argued that bryophytes may evolve as rapidly as higher plants on the molecular level, but this hypothesis has not been tested so far. Here, it is shown that mosses have experienced significantly lower rates of molecular evolution than higher plants within 18S rDNA (nuclear), rbcL (chloroplast) and nad5 (mitochondrial) genes. Mosses are on an average evolving 2–3 times slower than ferns, gymnosperms and angiosperms; and also green algae seem to be evolving faster than nonvascular plants. These results support the observation of a general correlation between morphological and molecular evolutionary rates in plants and also show that mosses are ‘evolutionary sphinxes’ regarding both morphological and molecular evolutionary potential.