Fossils and plant evolution: structural fingerprints and modularity in the evo-devo paradigm

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Fossils constitute the principal repository of data that allow for independent tests of hypotheses of biological evolution derived from observations of the extant biota. Traditionally, transformational series of structure, consisting of sequences of fossils of the same lineage through time, have been employed to reconstruct and interpret morphological evolution. More recently, a move toward an updated paradigm was fueled by the deliberate integration of developmental thinking in the inclusion of fossils in reconstruction of morphological evolution. The vehicle for this is provided by structural fingerprints—recognizable morphological and anatomical structures generated by (and reflective of) the deployment of specific genes and regulatory pathways during development. Furthermore, because the regulation of plant development is both modular and hierarchical in nature, combining structural fingerprints recognized in the fossil record with our understanding of the developmental regulation of those structures produces a powerful tool for understanding plant evolution. This is particularly true when the systematic distribution of specific developmental regulatory mechanisms and modules is viewed within an evolutionary (paleo-evo-devo) framework. Here, we discuss several advances in understanding the processes and patterns of evolution, achieved by tracking structural fingerprints with their underlying regulatory modules across lineages, living and fossil: the role of polar auxin regulation in the cellular patterning of secondary xylem and the parallel evolution of arborescence in lycophytes and seed plants; the morphology and life history of early polysporangiophytes and tracheophytes; the role of modularity in the parallel evolution of leaves in euphyllophytes; leaf meristematic activity and the parallel evolution of venation patterns among euphyllophytes; mosaic deployment of regulatory modules and the diverse modes of secondary growth of euphyllophytes; modularity and hierarchy in developmental regulation and the evolution of equisetalean reproductive morphology. More generally, inclusion of plant fossils in the evo-devo paradigm has informed discussions on the evolution of growth patterns and growth responses, sporophyte body plans and their homology, sequences of character evolution, and the evolution of reproductive systems.