Colonization of the land by multicellular green plants was a fundamental step in the evolution of life on earth. Land plants evolved from fresh-water aquatic algae, and the transition to a terrestrial environment required the acquisition of developmental plasticity appropriate to the conditions of water availability, ranging from drought to flood. Here we show that extant bryophytes exhibit submergence-induced developmental plasticity, suggesting that submergence responses evolved relatively early in the evolution of land plants. We also show that a major component of the bryophyte submergence response is controlled by the phytohormone ethylene, using a perception mechanism that has subsequently been conserved throughout the evolution of land plants. Thus a plant environmental response mechanism with major ecological and agricultural importance probably had its origins in the very earliest stages of the colonization of the land. © 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.