Experimental taphonomy of organelles and the fossil record of early eukaryote evolution

Emily M Carlisle*, Melina Jobbins, Vanisa Pankhania, John A Cunningham, Philip C J Donoghue *

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)
66 Downloads (Pure)


The timing of origin of eukaryotes and the sequence of eukaryogenesis are poorly constrained because their fossil record is difficult to interpret. Claims of fossilized organelles have been discounted on the unsubstantiated perception that they decay too quickly for fossilization. We experimentally characterised the pattern and timescale of decay of nuclei, chloroplasts and pyrenoids in red and green algae, demonstrating that they persist for many weeks post-mortem as physical substrates available for preservation, a timescale consistent with the known mechanisms of fossilization. Chloroplasts exhibit greater decay resistance than nuclei; pyrenoids are unlikely to be preserved but their presence could be inferred from spaces within fossil chloroplasts. Our results are compatible with differential organelle preservation in seed plants. Claims of fossilised organelles in Proterozoic fossils can no longer be dismissed on grounds of plausibility, prompting reinterpretation of the early eukaryote fossil record and the prospect of a fossil record of eukaryogenesis.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbereabe9487
Number of pages8
JournalScience Advances
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 27 Jan 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
E.M.C. is funded by a University of Bristol PhD Studentship. J.A.C. and P.C.J.D. were funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NE/J018325/1 and NE/P013678/1). P.C.J.D. is also funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BB/N000919/1; BB/ T012773/1) and Simons-Moore Foundation.

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2021 The Authors, some rights reserved.

Structured keywords

  • MSc Palaeobiology


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