Evolution of rapid blue-light response linked to explosive diversification of ferns in angiosperm forests

Shengguan Cai, Yuqing Huang, Fei Chen, Xin Zhang, Emily Sessa, Chenchen Zhao, D. Blaine Marchant, Dawei Xue, Guang Chen, Fei Dai, James H. Leebens-Mack, Guoping Zhang, Sergey Shabala, John M. Christie, Michael R. Blatt, Eviatar Nevo, Pamela S. Soltis, Douglas E. Soltis, Peter J. Franks, Feibo WuZhong Hua Chen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Ferns appear in the fossil record some 200 Myr before angiosperms. However, as angiosperm-dominated forest canopies emerged in the Cretaceous period there was an explosive diversification of modern (leptosporangiate) ferns, which thrived in low, blue-enhanced light beneath angiosperm canopies. A mechanistic explanation for this transformative event in the diversification of ferns has remained elusive. We used physiological assays, transcriptome analysis and evolutionary bioinformatics to investigate a potential connection between the evolution of enhanced stomatal sensitivity to blue light in modern ferns and the rise of angiosperm-dominated forests in the geological record. We demonstrate that members of the largest subclade of leptosporangiate ferns, Polypodiales, have significantly faster stomatal response to blue light than more ancient fern lineages and a representative angiosperm. We link this higher sensitivity to levels of differentially expressed genes in blue-light signaling, particularly in the cryptochrome (CRY) signaling pathway. Moreover, CRYs of the Polypodiales examined show gene duplication events between 212.9–196.9 and 164.4–151.8 Ma, when angiosperms were emerging, which are lacking in other major clades of extant land plants. These findings suggest that evolution of stomatal blue-light sensitivity helped modern ferns exploit the shady habitat beneath angiosperm forest canopies, fueling their Cretaceous hyperdiversification.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1201-1213
Number of pages13
JournalNew Phytologist
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 The Authors New Phytologist © 2020 New Phytologist Foundation


  • blue-light signaling
  • cryptochrome
  • fern evolution
  • photosynthesis
  • stomata

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Plant Science


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