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A sporophyte is the diploid generation of a plant or alga that has a double set of chromosomes. All land plants, and some algae, have life cycles in which a multicellular haploid gametophyte generation alternates with a multicellular diploid generation. In the Gymnosperms and flowering plants (Angiosperms), the sporophyte generation is the most prominent phase, comprising the familiar green plant with its roots, stem, leaves and cones or flowers. In the flowering plants, the gametophytes are very reduced in size, and are represented by the pollen and the embryo sac.
The sporophyte produces spores (hence the name), by meiosis. These meiospores develop into a gametophyte. Both the spores and the resulting gametophyte are haploid, meaning they only have one set of homologous chromosomes. The mature gametophyte produces male or female gametes (or both) by mitosis. The fusion of male and female gametes produces a diploid zygote which develops into a new sporophyte. This cycle is known as alternation of generations or alternation of phases.
Bryophytes (mosses, liverworts and hornworts) have a dominant gametophyte stage on which the adult sporophyte is dependent on the gametophyte for nutrition. The embryo of the sporophyte develops from the zygote within the female sex organ or archegonium, and in its early development is therefore nurtured by the gametophyte. Because this embryo-nurturing feature of the life cycle is common to all land plants they are known collectively as the Embryophytes.
Most algae have dominant gametophyte generations, but in some species the gametophytes and sporophytes are morphologically similar (isomorphic). An independent sporophyte is the dominant form in all clubmosses, horsetails, ferns, gymnosperms, and angiosperms (flowering plants) that have survived to the present day. Early land plants had sporophytes that produced identical spores (isosporous or homosporous) but the ancestors of the gymnosperms evolved complex heterosporous life cycles in which the spores producing male and female gametophytes were of different sizes, the female megaspores tending to be larger, and fewer in number, than the male microspores.
During the Devonian period several plant groups independently evolved heterospory and subsequently the habit of endospory, in which single megaspores were retained within the sporangia of the parent sporophyte, instead of being freely liberated into the environment as in ancestral exosporous plants. These endosporic megaspores contained within them a miniature multicellular female gametophyte complete with female sex organs or archegonia containing oocytes which were fertilised by free-swimming sperm produced by windborne miniatuarised male gametophytes in the form of pre-pollen. The resulting zygote developed into the next sporophyte generation while still retained within the pre-ovule, the single large female meiospore or megaspore contained in the modified sporangium or nucellus of the parent sporophyte. The evolution of heterospory and endospory were among the earliest steps in the evolution of seeds of the kind produced by gymnosperms and angiosperms today.
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