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Carved in stone: BU lab houses one of best, largest Devonian plant collections in world

To the untrained, it might look like an unappealing, discolored piece of rock. To William Stein’s eye, the sediment reveals a world of research, history and opportunity. Stein, associate professor of biological sciences specializing in paleobotany, the study of fossilized plants, runs a research laboratory that is home to one of the best and largest collections of Devonian Era plant fossils in North America, if not the world.

And in the fossil world, the Devonian Era is where it’s at in the evolution of modern plant life. According to Stein, the Devonian period, dating back approximately 410 million to 363 million years ago, is the most significant period for the evolution of plant life on land.

“The Devonian period is responsible for the ‘greening’ of our Earth,” he explains. “In this period, plant life exploded across the land. By the end of the Devonian, plant communities had grown to modern scale forests, with some plants reaching the size of trees. During this period, we observe the origin of all major types of plants on land.”

Scientists can track that evolution in a fossil record that tells the story in stone of the time when the major divisions of plant life such as ferns, horsetails and seed plants first evolved and exploded into many evolutionary branches. Thanks to a scholarly trail that dates back 35 years, Binghamton University’s Paleobotany Laboratory is one of the best places to study that story.

“Our fossil collection is right up there with the best,” Stein said. “Plants are well preserved, many with internal tissues remaining intact. Studying these fossils helps to understand one of the major events in the history of life on land.”

Binghamton’s collection has been visited by scholars from China, Europe and Russia and throughout North America and represents the accumulated efforts of many including BU faculty and students.

The collection was first assembled from specimens found in New York and around the world by paleobotanists from Binghamton University — James D. Grierson, now deceased, and Patricia Bonamo, Bartle professor of biology. The collection has been expanded over the years by numerous researchers, including significant additions from Stein’s fieldwork. Contributions also came from Cornell paleobotanist Harlan Banks, with whom Grierson and Bonamo studied. The collection includes specimens from the famous Rhynie chert in Scotland, which is so rich and well-preserved that it offers unique insight into the Devonian world. Thanks to Grierson, Binghamton has some of the finest examples from the chert in North America, including some superb fossils that provide a snapshot of what life was like during that period.

Just recently, BU received an important collection from Southern Illinois University. Stein said a retiring faculty member there recognized Binghamton’s reputation and offered the collection. Most of the unnamed fossils were originally found in New York, so it was only fitting they return here for research, he said.

Stein’s scholarly work and strong connections with many other recognized paleobiologists have helped build Binghamton’s reputation. He earned his BA in molecular biology and botany from Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. He went to the University of Michigan for his master’s and doctorate where he studied with Charles Beck, also a former student of Banks from Cornell. Stein did post-doctoral work at Michigan’s Museum of Paleontology and the Department of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. He came to Binghamton in 1988.

Stein has published more than 20 articles in peer-reviewed journals and is an associate editor for the American Journal of Botany and International Journal of Plant Sciences, both of which are circulated internationally. He named a new order of vascular plants and he developed a hormone-based computer model of vascular tissue differentiation to compare fossilized and living plants. More recently, he has been attempting to synthesize his work in paleobotany with developmental logic. “This is a synthesis of many ideas I’ve been working on for some time,” he said, “treating the evolution of development in plants from a theoretical perspective involving logic gates and other ideas borrowed from system science.”

He is also one of several contributors to a paleobotanical database being developed as part of a national database of paleontological records. The database is publically available on the Web.

The fact that Binghamton is home to such a world-class collection is due in large part to a combination of recent history as well as pre-history. The state is a rich natural storehouse of fossils, and early efforts of paleobiologists at the State Museum, New York State Geological Survey and colleges and universities made them some of the best studied fossils anywhere.

“New York got off to an early start compared to other states,” Stein said. “From the mid 1800s on, there’s been strong work here. The stratigraphy and fossils of the state have been well studied and many researchers worldwide compare their specimens with those from New York state.”

BU’s lab, located on the ground floor of Science 3, resembles a cross between a stone cutter’s shop and a high-tech laboratory. Diamond-tip saws whir as they cut through rock specimens to reveal the fossils within. Then, grinders are used to hone the fossils into thin slices. Fossilized plants are removed from ancient sediment by placing the rocks in hydrofluoric acid.

“The fossilized plant material can’t be destroyed because it consists of carbon and isnot subject to degradation by the acid,” Stein said.

The lab uses computer-based morphometrics that can examine specimens in minute detail. “Predictions and models can be formed from the actual measurements of the specimens,” he said.

For paleobotanists, the story the specimens tell, played out over millions of years, is one of exciting change and diversity.

“People think of dinosaurs and the bones that were found to reconstruct them,” Stein said. “Paleobotany is much the same in that we are given these pieces of information and use them to piece together plant evolution.

“The best part about this laboratory is that it not only helps in the research of paleobotany but also helps in the classroom. Use of this material in the classroom helps to bring a better understanding to the students.”

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