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Late Paleozoic in situ microorganisms in chert deposits

M. Krings

Microorganisms are critical in the bio- and geosphere today, and are responsible for the sustainability of ecosystem functions ranging from decomposition and bioerosion, to the catalyzation of nutrient cycles. With this recognition of the significance of microorganisms today, detailed knowledge about the evolutionary history of these organisms and their roles in biological and ecological processes in the past is pivotal to understanding the sustainability and evolution of ancient ecosystems.

Chert deposits are among the most important sources of information about fossil microorganisms, and about microbial associations and interactions with other organisms in ancient ecosystems. This is due primarily to the fact that cherts represent a mode of preservation in which the morphology, anatomy, and diversity levels of not only the microorganisms, but also their host organisms can be directly examined. Moreover, aspects of microbial biology and ecology (e.g., life history features, habitat preferences), as well as specific details of microbial associations and interactions (e.g., infection pathways, spatial distribution of the microbes on/within the host, host responses), can often be demonstrated on a consistent basis from multiple examples.

Our research, which is conducted in close cooperation with Hans Kerp and Hagen Hass of the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster (Germany), Thomas N. Taylor of the University of Kansas (U.S.A.), Jean Galtier of the University of Montpellier (France), and Reinhard Agerer of the Department Biology I at LMU, currently centers around three chert deposits containing exquisitely preserved terrestrial plants and microorganisms.

  • The Early Devonian Rhynie chert (Aberdeenshire, Scotland)
  • The Visean (Late Mississippian) cherts of Esnost and Lay/Roanne (France)
  • The Late Pennsylvanian Grand’Croix cherts (central France)

The fossil communities preserved in these cherts are used to document the morphology, biology, and biodiversity of the microorganisms, and also to detail the biological interactions between different types of microorganisms and between microorganisms and terrestrial plants. It is interesting to note that, although none of the plant partners exist today, many of the microorganisms involved appear morphologically little changed. Moreover, some interactions suggest that the genetic code and biochemical pathways necessary for the interactions to be successful evolved early in the lineages of microorganisms involved, and have seemingly remained unchanged to the present. The examination of inter-microbial and microorganism-land plant associations and interactions provides another level of biological resolution that helps in formulating hypotheses designed to more fully understand the functioning and evolution of ecosystems.

Scientific cooperation

  • Hans Kerp & Hagen Hass, Forschungsstelle für Paläobotanik am Geologisch-Paläontologischen Institut, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, Hindenburgplatz 57, 48143 Münster, Germany.
  • Thomas N. Taylor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center, The University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS 66045-7534, U.S.A.
  • Jean Galtier, AMAP, UMR 5120 CNRS, CIRAD TA A-51/ PS2, Boulevard de la Lironde, 34398 Montpellier, France.
  • Reinhard Agerer, Department Biologie I und GeoBio-CenterLMU, Organismische Biologie: Mykologie, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Menzinger Straße 67, 80638 Munich, Germany.

Several other colleagues in individual projects.


  • Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG): grant no. KE 584/13-1 to H. Kerp
  • National Science Foundation (NSF): grant no. EAR-0542170 to T.N. Taylor and M. Krings
  • Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation: grant no. V-3.FLF-DEU/1064359 to M. Krings
  • Freunde der Bayerischen Staatssammlung für Paläontologie und Historische Geologie, München e.V.

Selected publications

Dotzler N, Krings M, Agerer R, Galtier J, Taylor TN (2008) Combresomyces cornifer gen. sp. nov., an endophytic peronosporomycete in Lepidodendron from the Carboniferous of central France. Mycological Research 112, 1107–1114.

Dotzler N, Krings M, Taylor TN, Agerer R (2006) Germination shields in Scutellospora (Glomeromycota: Diversisporales, Gigasporaceae) from the 400 million-year-old Rhynie chert. Mycological Progress 5, 178–184.

Dotzler N, Taylor TN, Krings M (2007) A prasinophycean alga of the genus Cymatiosphaera in the Early Devonian Rhynie chert. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 147, 106–111.

Dotzler N, Walker C, Krings M, Hass H, Kerp H, Taylor TN, Agerer R (2009) Acaulosporoid glomeromycotan spores with a germination shield from the 400-million-year-old Rhynie chert, Mycological Progress 8, in press.

Krings M, Dotzler N, Taylor TN (2009) Globicultrix nugax nov. gen. et nov. spec. (Chytridiomycota), an intrusive microfungus in fungal spores from the Rhynie chert. Zitteliana A 48/49, in press.

Krings M, Dotzler N, Taylor TN, Galtier J (2007) A microfungal assemblage in Lepidodendron from the Upper Visean (Carboniferous) of central France. Comptes Rendus Palevol 6, 431–436.

Krings M, Grewing A, Taylor TN, Kerp H, Galtier J (2005) Lageniastrum macrosporae (fossil Volvocales, Lageniastraceae nov. fam.), an endophyte in megaspores from the Carboniferous of the French Massif Central. Geobios 38, 451–465.

Krings M, Hass H, Kerp H, Taylor TN, Agerer R, Dotzler N (2009) Endophytic cyanobacteria in a 400-million-yr-old land plant: A scenario for the origin of a symbiosis? Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 153, 62–69.

Krings M, Kerp H, Hass H, Taylor TN, Dotzler N (2007) A filamentous cyanobacterium showing structured colonial growth from the Early Devonian Rhynie chert. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 146, 265–276.

Krings M, Taylor TN, Hass H, Kerp H, Dotzler N, Hermsen EJ (2007) An alternative mode of early land plant colonization by putative endomycorrhizal fungi. Plant Signaling & Behavior 2, 125–126.

Krings M, Taylor TN, Hass H, Kerp H, Dotzler N, Hermsen EJ (2007). Fungal endophytes in a 400-million-yr-old land plant: infection pathways, spatial distribution, and host responses. New Phytologist 174, 648–657.

Taylor TN, Hass H, Kerp H, Krings M, Hanlin RT (2005) Perithecial ascomycetes from the 400 million year old Rhynie Chert: an example of ancestral polymorphism. Mycologia 97, 269–285.

Taylor TN, Klavins SD, Krings M, Taylor EL, Kerp H, Hass H (2004) Fungi from the Rhynie chert: a view from the dark side. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Earth Sciences 94: 457–473.

Taylor TN, Krings M (2005) Fossil microorganisms and land plants: associations and interactions. Symbiosis 40, 119–135.

Taylor TN, Krings M, Kerp H (2006) Hassiella monospora nov. gen. et sp., a microfungus from the 400 million year old Rhynie chert. Mycological Research 110, 628–632.


Homepage pic 1:Endophytic filamentous cyanobacterium living inside the land plant Aglaophyton major from the Lower Devonian Rhynie chert; bar = 5 µm (from Krings et al., 2009: Pl. II, 5).

Homepage pic 2:Unidentified fungus living in an epidermal cell of a fern from the Upper Pennsylvanian of Grand’Croix; bar = 3 µm (unpublished).