A team of paleontologists led by Oxford University researcher Prof. Liam Dolan has found the oldest known population of plant root stem cells in a fossilized root tip from a Carboniferous coal swamp forest 320 million years old. The discovery was published in the journal Current Biology. In addition to revealing the oldest plant root stem cells identified to date, the research also marks the first time an actively growing fossilized root has been discovered – in effect, an ancient plant frozen in time. Prof. Dolan and his colleagues have named the stem cell fossil Radix carbonica (Latin for ‘coal root’).
Plant stem cells are located at the tips of shoots and roots. The Carboniferous stem cells have a unique pattern of cell division that remained unknown until now. That tells paleontologists that some of the mechanisms controlling root formation in plants and trees have now become extinct and may have been more diverse than thought. These roots comprised the rooting structures of the plants growing in the Earth’s first global tropical wetland forests with tall trees over 50 m in height and were in part responsible for one of the most dramatic climate change events in history.
The evolution of deep rooting systems increased the rate of chemical weathering of silicate minerals in rocks – a chemical reaction that pulled carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, leading to the cooling of the Earth and thus one of the planet’s great Ice ages.
“These fossils demonstrate how the roots of these ancient plants grew for the first time. It is startling that something so small could have had such a dramatic effect on the Earth’s climate,” Prof. Dolan said.