Life histories of photosynthetic eukaryotes traditionally-termed algae exhibit a considerably greater degree of complexity than those of ‘higher cryptogams.’ Some algae have a so-called ‘obligate’alternation between spore-producing and gamete-producing phases, but the majority seem capable of following other pathways depending upon environmental conditions. In only four algal classes do life histories show a change in morphological and/or nuclear phases. The following basic life histories are recognized in the Chlorophyceae, Phaeophyceae and Rhodophyceae:(a) monophasic, a diploid or haploid phase, (b) two or more phases, most commonly an alternation of an isomorphic or heteromorphic haploid gametangial phase and a diploid sporangial phase, and (c) three phases (unique to florideophyte Rhodophyceae), with a diploid spore-producing phase (carposporophyte) developing on the gametangial phase, a diploid phase (tetrasporophyte if meiosis is sporic) and a haploid gametangial phase. Evidence from recent research indicates that in many algae there is an uncoupling of the morphological and nuclear phases. The dominance of one phase and suppression of another has been suggested to be due to the common occurrence in algae of apogamy, apomeiosis and parthenogenesis. Free-living morphs in heteromorphic life histories may be morphologically so dissimilar that formerly they were attributed to different genera.

Evolution of the carposporangial phase in red algae is speculated to be a means of achieving zygotic amplification to compensate for the infrequency of syngamy. Such amplification allows the production of a large number of dispersible products from a single fertilization. The direct development of a free-living tetrasporangial phase is considered another mechanism for achieving amplification. In freshwater red algae the growth of an upright phase from a perennial microscopic one is considered an adaptation for maintaining their upstream position.

Life history pathways in algae are controlled by subtle environmental influences (e.g. photoperiodism, temperature, light quality, nutrients). Experimental evidence is lacking to support the contention that spatial and/or temporal partitioning of the environment is a mechanism favouring the maintenance of heteromorphy. Herbivory is known to be an important selective force suppressing some morphs and accentuating the seasonal dominance of others. Differential resistance of morphs to herbivory in environments where grazing intensity is predictable may lead to the selective maintenance of heteromorphy.

Algal life history patterns are unexplored in terms of evolutionary processes. Various models for the evolution of biphasic or polyphasic life histories stress the importance of the capacity for both asexual dispersal of successful genotypes and for the generation of new genotypes via meiosis and syngamy. All evidence points to the fact that many life history processes operative in algae differ significantly from those described for other cryptogams.