Marine-freshwater and freshwater-marine transitions have been key events in the evolution of life, and most major groups of organisms have independently undergone such events at least once in their history. Here we first compile an inventory of bidirectional freshwater and marine transitions in multicellular photosynthetic eukaryotes. While green and red algae have mastered multiple transitions in both directions, brown algae have colonized fresh water on a maximum of six known occasions, and angiosperms have made the transition to marine environments only two or three times. Next we review the early evolutionary events leading to the colonization of current habitats. It is commonly assumed that the conquest of land proceeded in a sequence from marine to freshwater habitats. However, recent evidence suggests that early photosynthetic eukaryotes may have arisen in subaerial or freshwater environments and only later colonized marine environments as hypersaline oceans were diluted to the contemporary level. Although this hypothesis remains speculative, it is important to keep these alternative scenarios in mind when interpreting the current habitat distribution of plants and algae. Finally we discuss the roles of structural and functional adaptations of the cell wall, reactive oxygen species scavengers, osmoregulation, and reproduction. These are central for acclimatization to freshwater or to marine environments. We observe that successful transitions appear to have occurred more frequently in morphologically simple forms and conclude that, in addition to physiological studies of euryhaline species, comparative studies of closely related species fully adapted to one or the other environment are necessary to better understand the adaptive processes.
Published in Journal of Phycology, Accepted manuscript online: 16 May 2017.
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