The new findings were presented today at the 225th national meeting of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, in New Orleans.
Using an advanced analytical technique, applied for the first time to fossils, a team of researchers studied an extinct plant species called Asteroxylon thought to be one of the first plants to inhabit the land of the early continents. The new method, which allows scientists to analyze fossils without altering their spatial context, could provide paleontologists a way to answer some of the looming questions in Earth's history. It also offers wide-ranging applications in fields such as petroleum exploration and meteorite chemistry.
"A critical question is whether Asteroxylon in fact had the capacity to biosynthesize lignin," says George Cody, Ph.D., a chemist at the Carnegie Institute of Washington who presented the research. "If it did, it starts to beg an interesting question: If one of the earliest plants had this capacity, then is it that capacity that allowed plants to colonize the continents? And that, of course, could have enormous significance, because that was probably one of the many truly defining events in Earth history."
Asteroxylon was found fossilized in the beds of the Rhynie Chert a rock formation in northeast Scotland. Fossils from this site have revealed much about Earth as it might have been 400 million years ago, in the early Devonian period.
"What we came up with is evidence that really can't be explained any other way than the fact t