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Roots and shoots of plant bodies develop from meristems-cell populations that self-renew and produce cells that undergo differentiation-located at the apices of axes [1].The oldest preserved root apices in which cellular anatomy can be imaged are found in nodules of permineralized fossil soils called coal balls [2], which formed in the Carboniferous coal swamp forests over 300 million years ago [3-9]. However, no fossil root apices described to date were actively growing at the time of preservation [3-10]. Because the cellular organization of meristems changes when root growth stops, it has been impossible to compare cellular dynamics as stem cells transition to differentiated cells in extinct and extant taxa [11]. We predicted that meristems of actively growing roots would be preserved in coal balls. Here we report the discovery of the first fossilized remains of an actively growing root meristem from permineralized Carboniferous soil with detail of the stem cells and differentiating cells preserved. The cellular organization of the meristem is unique. The position of the Körper-Kappe boundary, discrete root cap, and presence of many anticlinal cell divisions within a broad promeristem distinguish it from all other known root meristems. This discovery is important because it demonstrates that the same general cellular dynamics are conserved between the oldest extinct and extant root meristems. However, its unique cellular organization demonstrates that extant root meristem organization and development represents only a subset of the diversity that has existed since roots first evolved.

Original publication




Journal article


Curr Biol

Publication Date





1629 - 1633


Biodiversity, Biological Evolution, Cycadopsida, Fossils, Meristem, Plant Development, Plant Roots