The Nitrogen-Fixing Abilities of Cycads


Long before the first legumes came onto the scene, the early ancestors of Cycads were hard at work fixing atmospheric nitrogen. However, they don't do this on their own. Despite being plentiful in Earth's atmosphere, gaseous nitrogen is not readily available to most forms of life. Only a special subset of organisms are capable of turning gaseous nitrogen into forms usable for life. Some of the first organisms to do this were the cyanobacteria, which has led them down the path towards symbioses with various plants on many occasions. 

Cycads are but one branch of the gymnosperm tree. Their lineage arose at some point between the Carboniferous and Permian eras. Throughout their history it would seem that Cycads have done quite well in poor soils. They owe this success to a partnership they struck up with cyanobacteria. Although it is impossible to say when exactly this happened, all extant cycads we know of today maintain this symbiotic relationship with these tiny prokaryotic organisms. 

Cross section of a coralloid cycad root showing the green cyanobacteria inside.

Cross section of a coralloid cycad root showing the green cyanobacteria inside.

The relationship takes place in Cycad roots. Cycads don't germinate with cyanobacteria in tow. They must acquire them from their immediate environment. To do so, they begin forming specialized structures called precoralloid roots. Unlike other roots that generally grow downwards, these roots grow upwards. They must situate themselves in the upper layer of soil where enough light penetrates for cyanobacteria to photosynthesize.

The cyanobacteria enter into the precoralloid roots through tiny cracks and take up residence. This causes a change in root development. The Cycad then initiates their development into true coralloid roots, which will house the cyanobacteria from that point on. Cycads appear to be in full control of the relationship, dolling out carbohydrates in return for nitrogen depending on the demands of their environment. Coralloid roots can shed and reform throughout the lifetime of the plant. It is quite remarkable to think about how nitrogen-fixing symbiotic relationships between plants and microbes have evolved independently throughout the history of life on this planet.

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Further Reading: [1] [2]


The Crazy World of Cycad Sex

When we think about plants, swimming ability generally doesn't come to mind. As kids we learn that one of the major differences between plants and animals is that plants generally can't move on their own volition. Certainly there are exceptions to this rule - sensitive plants and Venus flytraps to name a few. However, there are plants out there in which swimming is a crucial component of their life cycle. Though it isn't the plant itself that does the swimming, some of the ancestral plant lineages alive today have motile sperm!

Swimming sperm is a throwback to the early days of plant evolution. Because they arose from aquatic algae, a sperm's ability to swim to an ovule helped increase the chances of reproduction. Today we see this adaptation in plants like liverworts, mosses, and ferns, which still require water to complete their life cycle. However, swimming sperm are not restricted to the cryptograms. This adaptation also can be found in cycads (as well as ginkgoes). Their sperm are super strange too. They look like little seeds covered in concentric rings of beating flagella. Unlike cryptograms, however, their swimming ability doesn't come into play until pollen comes into contact with the ovule.

Cycads are either male or female. Each produces cone-like structures called strobili. This is where the magic happens. When pollen from a male plant finds its way onto the ovule of a female, it does something quite strange. It fuses with the ovule and begins to grow. In essence it acts almost like a parasite, sucking up nutrients from the ovule tissue and destroying it in the process. This is okay because once this happens, these tissues soon become obsolete. What matters is the female gametophyte, which is embedded inside the ovule.

The pollen begins to grow a tube down into the ovule. Once it has gained enough energy, the pollen will then burst and release its sperm. This is where the flagella come in. Each sperm is like a tiny submarine, capable of swimming around inside the ovule until it locates the female gametophyte. Then and only then is fertilization accomplished. Pretty wild for an otherwise sessile organism, wouldn't you say?

Photo Credit:‚Ķ/lab-5-origin-of-plants

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