The Reconstruction of Evolution
Alexander Roland Schmidt is a biologist through and through. Already as a child in Jena he roamed the surroundings of his home in search of anything growing, flowering, creeping and crawling – to bring it home with him: one day it would be aquatic plants, another day frogs, and so on. He kept amphibians in terrariums, grew succulents and insect-eating plants in the greenhouse. And his spirit of discovery has remained unchanged ever since: “I have this urge to go out into nature and look at things.” Today however he no longer collects animals and plants, but takes photographs of them where he encounters them. Thus, it is nothing out of the ordinary for Schmidt to take 180 pictures of a parasitic conifer in New Caledonia. And his passion also has a practical use: “These photos make excellent teaching material.”
Since his early research work, the now 36-year-old has been delving into details. He applied biomolecular methods to studying carnivorous plants for his Diploma thesis at Jena University. For his dissertation at the Jena Institute of Ecology he examined amber inclusions from the Bavarian Alps. After obtaining his doctorate, he joined the staff of the Museum of Natural History of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. There, in the context of a project funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), he conducted research on the processes taking place in the encapsulation and fossilisation of microorganisms in resin.
Inclusions in amber play an eminent role in his main area of research, palaeoecology – which deals with the development of environments, symbiotic communities, and living conditions during the history of the earth. These fossils constitute a unique archive of natural history. “Here we find conserved the original forms of the organisms that have differentiated into today’s groups over the course of evolution”, Schmidt says. He mainly studies microorganisms such as fungi and algae, thus occupying a scientific niche. “Hardly anyone has done research on these microinclusions so far; it’s a relatively young area of research. For example, only few fungi encapsulated in amber have been described up to today.” He is one of the first to venture into this uncharted territory.
Alexander Schmidt is particularly interested in resin inclusions from the Cretaceous period; at an age of a hundred million years these are three times older than the amber found in the Baltics. In recent years researchers have discovered several new sites of occurrence, some of them containing amber from the Triassic period. Together with Italian scientists, Schmidt has found several of these 220 million-year-old pieces of resin with inclusions in the Dolomite Alps. “These are the oldest amber inclusions ever discovered.” Amber deposits have been discovered in Spain, France, the USA, and South Africa – so many that it will scarcely be possible for each and every one of them to be examined.
It is not difficult for Schmidt to get hold of sufficient material, as he works in close collaboration with researchers from the countries where the places of finding are located. He intends to continue these collaborations at Göttingen University, where he has been leading the junior research group “Evolution of Landplants and the Development of Terrestrial Ecosystems” since July 2008. This group was established at the Courant Research Centre “Geobiology – Development of Early Life and
Organic-matter-controlled Rock- and Mineral-forming Processes“. In Schmidt’s opinion, Göttingen is a truly ideal working location: “There are very few places where the research conducted in the bio- and geosciences is this diverse.”
As he proceeds with his research on amber inclusions at Göttingen University, Alexander Schmidt will constantly be keeping in view not only the details but also the big picture – that is, the evolution of ecosystems. He is planning to use model calculations to identify periods with intensified or accelerated development of species and to determine the impact of these changes on the individual environments. Fossil microorganisms serve as one of the bases for this research. Another focus is on palaeobotany, which deals with the development of the vegetation zones and plant species in the course of the history of the earth. Schmidt’s group of researchers is examining the development of vegetation in a geological context, looking at the interdependencies between vascular plants and microorganisms. “We are trying to understand how evolution took place in the interplay between these groups of organisms”, he says.
In order to do so, Schmidt will be travelling a good deal over the next two years. He is going to New York and London to sift through museum collections; his agenda also includes research expeditions to the USA, South Africa, Northern Italy, and Spain, to look for amber inclusions once again. When it comes to collecting, he just can’t stop – and nor can he cease to admire the diversity and beauty of nature.