The study of plants is vital because they underpin almost all animal life on Earth by generating a large proportion of the oxygen and food that provide humans and other organisms with aerobic respiration with the chemical energy they need to exist. Plants, algae and cyanobacteria are the major groups of organisms that carry out photosynthesis, a process that uses the energy of sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugars that can be used both as a source of chemical energy and of organic molecules that are used in the structural components of cells. As a by-product of photosynthesis, plants release oxygen into the atmosphere, a gas that is required by nearly all living things to carry out cellular respiration. In addition, they are influential in the global carbon and water cycles and plant roots bind and stabilise soils, preventing soil erosion. Plants are crucial to the future of human society as they provide food, oxygen, medicine, and products for people, as well as creating and preserving soil.
Historically, all living things were classified as either animals or plants and botany covered the study of all organisms not considered animals. Botanists examine both the internal functions and processes within plant organelles, cells, tissues, whole plants, plant populations and plant communities. At each of these levels, a botanist may be concerned with the classification (taxonomy), phylogeny and evolution, structure (anatomy and morphology), or function (physiology) of plant life.
The strictest definition of "plant" includes only the "land plants" or embryophytes, which include seed plants (gymnosperms, including the pines, and flowering plants) and the free-sporing cryptogams including ferns, clubmosses, liverworts, hornworts and mosses. Embryophytes are multicellular eukaryotes descended from an ancestor that obtained its energy from sunlight by photosynthesis. They have life cycles with alternating haploid and diploid phases. The sexual haploid phase of embryophytes, known as the gametophyte, nurtures the developing diploid embryo sporophyte within its tissues for at least part of its life, even in the seed plants, where the gametophyte itself is nurtured by its parent sporophyte. Other groups of organisms that were previously studied by botanists include bacteria (now studied in bacteriology), fungi (mycology) including lichen-forming fungi (lichenology), non-chlorophyte algae (phycology), and viruses (virology). However, attention is still given to these groups by botanists, and fungi (including lichens) and photosynthetic protists are usually covered in introductory botany courses.
Palaeobotanists study ancient plants in the fossil record to provide information about the evolutionary history of plants. Cyanobacteria, the first oxygen-releasing photosynthetic organisms on Earth, are thought to have given rise to the ancestor of plants by entering into an endosymbiotic relationship with an early eukaryote, ultimately becoming the chloroplasts in plant cells. The new photosynthetic plants (along with their algal relatives) accelerated the rise in atmospheric oxygen started by the cyanobacteria, changing the ancient oxygen-free, reducing, atmosphere to one in which free oxygen has been abundant for more than 2 billion years.
Among the important botanical questions of the 21st century are the role of plants as primary producers in the global cycling of life's basic ingredients: energy, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and water, and ways that our plant stewardship can help address the global environmental issues of resource management, conservation, human food security, biologically invasive organisms, carbon sequestration, climate change, and sustainability.