Identification of Carboniferous (320 Million Years Old) Class Ic Amber

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Science  02 Oct 2009:
Vol. 326, Issue 5949, pp. 132-134
DOI: 10.1126/science.1177539

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Extra Ancient Amber

Amber is fossilized tree resin, typically produced by trees in response to an injury. Most amber is Mesozoic or Cenozoic in age (dating back as far as 250 million years ago), and the most common class, produced primarily by angiosperms, is formed from distinct complex polyterpenoids. Bray and Anderson (p. 132; see the Perspective by Grimaldi) now find that amber from the Carboniferous, dating to more than 300 million years ago, long before the evolution of angiosperms, has a similar chemistry. Thus, the biosynthetic mechanism for producing complex ambers evolved long before the appearance of flowering plants.


The presence of amber, the fossil form of the resins produced by many types of higher plants, has been reported from many localities in Mesozoic and Cenozoic rocks. We have found Class I (polylabdanoid) amber in Carboniferous sediments dating to ~320 million years ago. This result demonstrates that preconifer gymnosperms evolved the biosynthetic mechanisms to produce complex polyterpenoid resins earlier than previously believed and that the biosynthetic pathways leading to the types of polylabdanoid resins that are now typically found in conifers and those now typically found in angiosperms had already diverged by the Carboniferous.

  • * Present address: Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Macquarie University, Sydney, New South Wales 2109, Australia.

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