All plants undergo a life cycle that takes them through both haploid and diploid generations. The multicellular diploid plant structure is called the sporophyte, which produces spores through meiotic (asexual) division. The multicellular haploid plant structure is called the gametophyte, which is formed from the spore and give rise to the haploid gametes. The fluctuation between these diploid and haploid stages that occurs in plants is called the alternation of generations. The way in which the alternation of generations occurs in plants depends on the type of plant. In bryophytes (mosses and liverworts), the dominant generation is haploid, so that the gametophyte comprises what we think of as the main plant. The opposite is true for tracheophytes (vascular plants), in which the diploid generation is dominant and the sporophyte comprises the main plant.
Bryophytes are nonvascularized plants that are still dependent on a moist environment for survival (see Plant Classification, Bryophytes . Like all plants, the bryophyte life cycle goes through both haploid (gametophyte) and diploid (sporophyte) stages. The gametophyte comprises the main plant (the green moss or liverwort), while the diploid sporophyte is much smaller and is attached to the gametophyte. The haploid stage, in which a multicellular haploid gametophyte develops from a spore and produces haploid gametes, is the dominant stage in the bryophyte life cycle. The mature gametophyte produces both male and female gametes, which join to form a diploid zygote. The zygote develops into the diploid sporophyte, which extends from the gametophyte and produces haploid spores through meiosis. Once the spores germinate, they produce new gametophyte plants and the cycle continues.
Tracheophytes are plants that contain vascular tissue; two of the major classes of tracheophytes are gymnosperms (conifers) and angiosperms (flowering plants). Tracheophytes, unlike bryophytes, have developed seeds that encase and protect their embryos. The dominant phase in the tracheophyte life cycle is the diploid (sporophyte) stage. The gametophytes are very small and cannot exist independent of the parent plant. The reproductive structures of the sporophyte (cones in gymnosperms and flowers in angiosperms), produce two different kinds of haploid spores: microspores (male) and megaspores (female). This phenomenon of sexually differentiated spores is called heterospory. These spores give rise to similarly sexually differentiated gametophytes, which in turn produce gametes. Fertilization occurs when a male and female gamete join to form a zygote. The resulting embryo, encased in a seed coating, will eventually become a new sporophyte.