The gymnosperm order Gnetales, which has contentious phylogenetic affinities, includes three extant genera (Ephedra, Gnetum, Welwitschia) that are morphologically highly divergent and have contrasting ecological preferences: Gnetum occupies mesic tropical habitats, whereas Ephedra and Welwitschia occur in arid environments. Leaves are highly reduced in Ephedra, petiolate with a broad lamina in Gnetum and persistent and strap-like in Welwitschia. We investigate stomatal development and prepatterning stages in Gnetales, to evaluate the substantial differences among the three genera and compare them with other seed plants. Photosynthetic organs of representative species were examined using light microscopy, scanning electron microscopy and transmission electron microscopy. Stomata of all three genera possess lateral subsidiary cells (LSCs). LSCs of Ephedra are perigene cells derived from cell files adjacent to the stomatal meristemoids. In contrast, LSCs of Gnetum and Welwitschia are mesogene cells derived from the stomatal meristemoids; each meristemoid undergoes two mitoses to form a ‘developmental triad’, of which the central cell is the guard mother cell and the lateral pair are LSCs. Epidermal prepatterning in Gnetum undergoes a ‘quartet’ phase, in contrast with the linear development of Welwitschia. Quartet prepatterning in Gnetum resembles that of some angiosperms but they differ in later development. Several factors underpin the profound and heritable differences observed among the three genera of Gnetales. Stomatal development in Ephedra differs significantly from that of Gnetum and Welwitschia, more closely resembling that of other extant gymnosperms. Differences in epidermal prepatterning broadly reflect differences in growth habit between the three genera.
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