The first fungi would have appeared on Earth between 715 and 810 million years ago, at least 300 million years earlier than previously calculated, according to a new study in Science Advances. According to the researchers of this new study, the first fungi were very important for the development of the first plants that colonized the mainland after they appeared in the sea.
The study shows how mysterious the origin and evolution of fungi, one of the strangest life forms, remains. The problem with fungi lies in the fact that fossils are very few or at least extremely rare and, as far as the smaller fungi are concerned, they are difficult to distinguish from other microorganisms.
The new study was carried out by Professor Steeve Bonneville of the Université libre de Bruxelles, who together with his team analyzed fossilized remains of microscopic fungi that seem to have formed “nets” or ramifications similar to mycelium impressed on an underground rock, relatively rich in organic substances, which represented an ideal environment for the conservation of the fossil. These fossils had been discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo are part of the collection of the Museum of Africa in Tervuren.
The particularity of these mushrooms lies in the fact that they were formed in a lagoon or lake environment between 715 and 810 million years ago. This led researchers themselves to believe that these microscopic fungi may have been important partners of the first plants that colonized the earth’s surface around 500 million years ago, as Bonneville himself explains. The researchers used multiple techniques to analyze and date the fossils of these fungi, from synchrotron radiation spectroscopy to μ-Raman confocal microscopy to electron and fluorescence microscopy.
They have therefore not only dated the period in which these fungi lived but have also studied their chemistry and discovered that they could have lived more than 800 million years ago.
According to the researchers, it was the ephemeral ponds, small bodies of water that formed and dried in perennial cycles, that favored the first physical interactions between fungi and algae. During the Neoproterozoic era (between 1000 and 542 million years ago) fungi would have helped plants colonize the earth’s surface, 300 million years before the first tests of plants on land.