Microbe-like inclusions in tree resins and implications for the fossil record of protists in amber

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Abstract

During the past two decades, a plethora of fossil micro-organisms have been described from various Triassic to Miocene ambers. However, in addition to entrapped microbes, ambers commonly contain microscopic inclusions that sometimes resemble amoebae, ciliates, microfungi, and unicellular algae in size and shape, but do not provide further diagnostic features thereof. For a better assessment of the actual fossil record of unicellular eukaryotes in amber, we studied equivalent inclusions in modern resin of the Araucariaceae; this conifer family comprises important amber-producers in Earth history. Using time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometry (ToF-SIMS), we investigated the chemical nature of the inclusion matter and the resin matrix. Whereas the matrix, as expected, showed a more hydrocarbon/aromatic-dominated composition, the inclusions contain abundant salt ions and polar organics. However, the absence of signals characteristic for cellular biomass, namely distinctive proteinaceous amino acids and lipid moieties, indicates that the inclusions do not contain microbial cellular matter but salts and hydrophilic organic substances that probably derived from the plant itself. Rather than representing protists or their remains, these microbe-like inclusions, for which we propose the term ‘pseudoinclusions’, consist of compounds that are immiscible with the terpenoid resin matrix and were probably secreted in small amounts together with the actual resin by the plant tissue. Consequently, reports of protists from amber that are only based on the similarity of the overall shape and size to extant taxa, but do not provide relevant features at light-microscopical and ultrastructural level, cannot be accepted as unambiguous fossil evidence for these particular groups.

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