Did Ancient Fungi Make Life on Dry Land Possible?

Scientists believe they have discovered the oldest land-based fungal fossil on record, dating back to 635-million years ago. The discovery was made in a cave in southern China, and the tendrils of this ancient fungi are so small they can’t be seen by the human eye. The discovery predates the next oldest land fungus ever discovered by a span of roughly 240 million years, making this discovery a significant one in terms of what it tells us about life on our planet.


As an article on Live Science states:


“This remarkable find pushes back the appearance of terrestrial fungus by about 240 million years to a period known as ‘snowball Earth’ when the planet was locked in ice from 750 million to 580 million years ago.”


According to one researcher who worked on the study, Shuhai Xiao, a professor of geosciences with the Virginia Tech College of Science, finding microscopic fossils is part skill and part luck. Xiao estimates that only about 1 in 10 rocks they split open in search of fossils actually contains any, lending this find an element of serendipity. 


How Life Began


The find can tell us something about how life moved from Earth’s ocean onto the land. The fact that ancient fungi were on dry land so long ago suggests that something in their natural processes of breaking down minerals and altering the composition of the atmosphere may have helped life on dry land become more feasible. According to the Live Science article about the study, “fungus could have played an important part in reshaping Earth’s geochemistry, creating more hospitable conditions that paved the way for terrestrial plants and animals to eventually emerge and thrive.”


It seems the more we learn about fungi, the more we realize how much life on earth relies on their role in the global ecosystem. This find, it seems, is no exception. As scientists learn more, we may discover the extent to which fungi fostered the conditions that led to the evolution of our species, just as we know the key role they have played in our ability to thrive.


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