Major differences in primary cell wall (PCW) components between non-vascular plant taxa are reported. (1) Xyloglucan: driselase digestion yielded isoprimeverose (the diagnostic repeat unit of xyloglucan) from PCW-rich material of Anthoceros (a hornwort), mosses and both leafy and thalloid liverworts, as well as numerous vascular plants, showing xyloglucan to be a PCW component in all land plants tested. In contrast, charophycean green algae (Klebsormidium flaccidium, Coleochaete scutata and Chara corallina), thought to be closely related to land plants, did not contain xyloglucan. They did not yield isoprimeverose; additionally, charophyte material was not digestible with xyloglucan-specific endoglucanase or cellulase to give xyloglucan-derived oligosaccharides. (2) Uronic acids: acid hydrolysis of PCW-rich material from the charophytes, the hornwort, thalloid and leafy liverworts and a basal moss yielded higher concentrations of glucuronic acid than that from the remaining land plants including the less basal mosses and all vascular plants tested. Polysaccharides of the hornwort Anthoceros contained an unusual repeat-unit, glucuronic acid-alpha(1-->3)-galactose, not found in appreciable amounts in any other plants tested. Galacturonic acid was consistently the most abundant PCW uronic acid, but was present in higher concentrations in acid hydrolysates of bryophytes and charophytes than in those of any of the vascular plants. Mannuronic acid was not detected in any of the species surveyed. (3) Mannose: acid hydrolysis of charophyte and bryophyte PCW-rich material also yielded appreciably higher concentrations of mannose than are found in vascular plant PCWs. (4) Mixed-linkage glucan (MLG) was absent from all algae and bryophytes tested; however, upon digestion with licheninase, PCW-rich material from the alga Ulva lactuca and the leafy liverwort Lophocolea bidentata yielded penta- to decasaccharides, indicating the presence of MLG-related polysaccharides. Our results show that major evolutionary events are often associated with changes in PCW composition. In particular, the acquisition of xyloglucan may have been a pre-adaptive advantage that allowed colonization of land. (C) 2003 Annals of Botany Company.