400 Million Years of Ferns

Ferns are all leaf, all the time—no celebrated flower, no seduction of the insect. At the tips of green sprouts, curled fiddleheads unroll while leaflets widen behind them like the wakes behind boats. My store-bought Boston fern, tended for years with no expertise, is a fountain of green, its dazzling fans of leaves arching up, out, and over.

Before ferns, plants were creatures of the water, with no need for roots or stems. But about 450 million years ago, Earth passed through the first of its five mass extinctions (so far). The climate cooled, water froze, glaciers grew, the sea level fell, coastal and ocean habitats disappeared. But new land was exposed, and when the climate warmed again, plants grew there.

The first of these land plants were mosses. Carpets of moss sprang up along lakes and streams. But without deep roots or firm stems, mosses grew no higher than a few inches. Thriving on land requires tubes that can carry liquids up and throughout an organism. Ferns were among the earliest plants with roots to dig deep for water, and with stalks and stems to transport it throughout the plant. Vascular tissue changed everything. Ferns reached the height of trees.

Devonian ferns wikimedia


And ferns grew very efficient leaves. They needed them to capture carbon dioxide whose levels fluctuated widely over the millennia. Whenever the atmosphere’s declining carbon dioxide led to cooling temperatures, the hundreds of leaves on even a small fern could soak up enough to keep it going. Today, healthy ferns withstand cold weather better than most plants.

Ferns have multiplied the world over in part because of how they propagate. They were and are old-fashioned and deliberate about sex. Instead of reproducing through miniaturized plants embodied in seeds, ferns spread through spores, single cells released from the underside of the fronds. When the spores settle on moist soil, they grow into a tiny intermediate plant that will create the male and female components for the start for a new fern. Spore propagation seems an overly complicated, two-step process, but the lightness of the spores lets them disperse on the wind and germinate on distant moist soil.

Some days I stare at a plant whose distinctive features date back nearly 400 million years. No other plant or animal that I see every day goes back almost to the beginning of life on land. A fern’s ancestors invented leaves and roots and the old method of reproducing.  They survived four mass extinctions, as well as the flowering plants that burst on the planet 125 million years ago and came to dominate the plant kingdom. Ferns watched the dinosaurs come and go. Today they regale us with tales of ancient climates and their ingenious survival skills.



Is DNA Alive?

No, it’s not alive…mostly. The only sense in which a DNA molecule is a living thing is that it makes copies of itself, although it can’t even do that on its own. Otherwise, DNA fails all the tests: it doesn’t process any kind of fuel in order to maintain its state, it doesn’t grow and develop, so it has no energized activity that starts or ends—in other words, it’s not born and it doesn’t die.

Somewhere along the line in reading general science I picked up the impression, even though I think I knew differently, that DNA strands are alive. They are such vital keys to living organisms, and I’d read so many descriptions of what DNA does and of “selfish” genes, that although I knew they were blueprints of a sort, they came to seem like living blueprints.

DNA and seed (kew.org)

DNA and seed

One image that took shape in the back of my mind was that DNA was a kind of seed, and seeds, I thought, are alive. But no, seeds are not fully alive either. They are not active and, until they germinate, they don’t change or develop. (Another familiar item that may seem alive but that doesn’t meet all the criteria are viruses. Viruses are bundles of DNA that become active only when they are inside a cell, at which point they take over the cell and give us the flu.)

It shouldn’t be surprising that some familiar biological components do not, by themselves, meet all the criteria for the complex condition we call “being alive.” Still, surprised I was about DNA. Perhaps because we humans are so fully aware that we are alive, it is easy to think that there must be a fully living seed or even a soul at the root. It is almost more than we can imagine that the liveliness we feel is the product of a complexity of non-living parts. It’s an astounding thing.