Summary The colonization of the land by plants, sometime before 470 million years ago, was accompanied by the evolution tissue systems [1-3]. Specialized structures with diverse functions - from nutrient acquisition to reproduction - derived from single cells in the outermost layer (epidermis) were important sources of morphological innovation at this time [2, 4, 5]. In extant plants, these structures may be unicellular extensions, such as root hairs or rhizoids [6-9], or multicellular structures, such as asexual propagules or secretory hairs (papillae) [10-12]. Here, we show that a ROOTHAIR DEFECTIVE SIX-LIKE (RSL) class I basic helix-loop-helix transcription factor positively regulates the development of the unicellular and multicellular structures that develop from individual cells that expand out of the epidermal plane of the liverwort Marchantia polymorpha; mutants that lack MpRSL1 function do not develop rhizoids, slime papillae, mucilage papillae, or gemmae. Furthermore, we discovered that RSL class I genes are also required for the development of multicellular axillary hairs on the gametophyte of the moss Physcomitrella patens. Because class I RSL proteins also control the development of rhizoids in mosses and root hairs in angiosperms [13, 14], these data demonstrate that the function of RSL class I genes was to control the development of structures derived from single epidermal cells in the common ancestor of the land plants. Class I RSL genes therefore controlled the generation of adaptive morphological diversity as plants colonized the land from the water.