OpenStax Biology 2e

How organisms acquired traits that allow them to colonize new environments—and how the contemporary ecosystem is shaped—are fundamental questions of evolution. Paleobotany (the study of extinct plants) addresses these questions through the analysis of fossilized specimens retrieved from field studies, reconstituting the morphology of organisms that disappeared long ago. Paleobotanists trace the evolution of plants by following the modifications in plant morphology: shedding light on the connection between existing plants by identifying common ancestors that display the same traits. This field seeks to find transitional species that bridge gaps in the path to the development of modern organisms. Fossils are formed when organisms are trapped in sediments or environments where their shapes are preserved. Paleobotanists collect fossil specimens in the field and place them in the context of the geological sediments and other fossilized organisms surrounding them. The activity requires great care to preserve the integrity of the delicate fossils and the layers of rock in which they are found.

One of the most exciting recent developments in paleobotany is the use of analytical chemistry and molecular biology to study fossils. Preservation of molecular structures requires an environment free of oxygen, since oxidation and degradation of material through the activity of microorganisms depend on its presence. One example of the use of analytical chemistry and molecular biology is the identification of oleanane, a compound that deters pests. Up to this point, oleanane appeared to be unique to flowering plants; however, it has now been recovered from sediments dating from the Permian, much earlier than the current dates given for the appearance of the first flowering plants. Paleobotanists can also study fossil DNA, which can yield a large amount of information, by analyzing and comparing the DNA sequences of extinct plants with those of living and related organisms. Through this analysis, evolutionary relationships can be built for plant lineages.

Some paleobotanists are skeptical of the conclusions drawn from the analysis of molecular fossils. For example, the chemical materials of interest degrade rapidly when exposed to air during their initial isolation, as well as in further manipulations. There is always a high risk of contaminating the specimens with extraneous material, mostly from microorganisms. Nevertheless, as technology is refined, the analysis of DNA from fossilized plants will provide invaluable information on the evolution of plants and their adaptation to an ever-changing environment.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:

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