Jurassic Plants

Plant researcher breaks ground by merging botany and numbers.

2012 LAS Alumni Achievement Award winner Karl Niklas.
2012 LAS Alumni Achievement Award winner Karl Niklas.

LAS alum Karl Niklas recalls one of the early scenes in the movie Jurassic Park, when paleobotanist Ellie Sattler is sitting in a jeep and staring at an enormous leaf.

“This species of vermiform has been extinct since the Cretaceous period,” Ellie exclaims. Suddenly, she looks up and is stunned to catch her first sight of a live dinosaur, and she immediately drops the leaf. Prehistoric plants are not mentioned for the rest of the movie.

Niklas concedes that when it comes to prehistoric life forms, dinosaurs are always going to trump ancient plants, but that has not stopped him from bringing an extraordinary amount of passion to his career as one of the country’s leading paleobotanists. His enthusiasm spills into the classroom, for the Princeton Review recently named him one of the top 300 professors in any field in the country, based on student ratings.

He is also a 2012 winner of the LAS Alumni Achievement Award.

Niklas grew up in Manhattan and started out as a math major as an undergraduate. But when an introductory botany instructor drew him into the world of plants, he says, “I suddenly realized I could apply mathematics to understanding plant structure and morphology. If you look at plants, they are mathematically well-described structures. They have symmetry and well-defined shapes in a Cartesian way.”

Niklas went on to receive his masters and PhD from the University of Illinois, where paleobotany professor Tom Phillips inspired him to specialize in prehistoric plants and how they evolved into today’s species. Niklas became a pioneer in paleobiochemistry, and in the 1970s he was one of the first to learn how to extract important organic molecules from fossil plant remains.

“Now, of course, people do it on a regular basis,” he says, “But people then didn’t think it was possible to extract organic molecules from fossils, so they didn’t try it. But you don’t know if it’s really impossible until you try.”

Niklas received his PhD in paleobotany from Illinois in 1974 and began work as curator of the paleobotany collection at the New York Botanical Gardens. Then, in 1978, Cornell University brought him aboard as a botany professor, and he has been there ever since.

His initial work entailed grinding up fossils and looking at their chemistry. One of the most dramatic finds by Niklas and his colleagues came on a field expedition to Moscow, Idaho; they discovered fossil chloroplasts and fossil nuclei approximately 24 million years old.

After initially concentrating on fossil chemistry, he says, “I started returning to my mathematical roots. I was interested in plant morphology from a mathematical point of view.” Specifically, he wanted to use engineering, math, and chemistry to understand how function related to form as plants evolved.

According to Feng Sheng Hu, head of plant biology at U of I, “Karl articulated entirely new questions. What were ancient plants made of? How did they stand up straight? The emphasis on the physics and chemistry of plant life would become Karl’s calling card, answering questions that many botanists hadn’t thought to ask. I believe he will be listed among the greatest of plant morphologists.”

For example, Niklas used clay to create models of the reproductive structures of ancient plants. Then he placed these structures in a wind tunnel and released the spores of living plants to observe how they move in the air around the ancient plants’ reproductive structures. His team found that the structure that was most efficient in capturing wind-borne pollen looked very much like the ovules in modern-day plants.

Niklas was also interested in the speed of plant evolution, so he tracked the development of various plant groups in the fossil record. His team even used computer simulations of all of the possible shapes and sizes of plants to study how well they perform various functions such as the ability to intercept sunlight or grow tall and still remain stable. Most recently, Niklas has been looking at how gene networks create patterns of plant development.

“But I’m not just a lab rat,” he says. Niklas regularly troops into the field and is currently climbing trees and collecting leaves to study the relationship between leaf size and the amount of carbon that a plant invests in constructing the leaf.

All of this indicates that if Niklas had been dropped into Jurassic Park, he might very well have spent more time staring at the leaves than the dinosaurs. “Plants are vital, for the bottom line is that if plants had not evolved onto land, animals would not have been able to evolve onto land,” he points out. “Plants are just beautiful.”

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Doug Peterson