Newly discovered microfossils could change understanding of how life evolved

Mushrooms, mold and yeast are widely thought to have developed around half a billion years ago, but new fungi microfossils found in the Canadian Arctic could be resetting that timeline – with a discovery by a team of international researchers determining the tiny fungi could be between 900 million and one billion years old.

These findings are significant since fungi fall under the same group of organisms as plants and animals, known as Eukaryotes, possibly reshaping our understanding of when and how all life on earth developed.

The microfossils studied so far have been unable to have been related to one specific fungal lineage, but combined analyses of the specimens cumulatively support and confirm previously accepted models for fungi development on our planet, according to University of Liege PhD student Corentin Loron.

“This means that, if fungi are already present around (900 million to one billion years ago), the common ancestor of fungi and animals is older, so animals should be  contemporaneous of early Fungi,” Loron said in an interview with States of Life. “This is reshaping our vision of the world because those two groups, as well as other eukaryotic groups like algae, are still present today. Therefore, this distant past, although very different from today (continents at different places, different atmospheric and oceanic composition), may have been much more modern than we thought.”

Fungi make up a wide array of unicellular or multicellular organisms, and are considered the most abundant organisms on earth and are the third largest contributor to our planet’s biomass after only plants and bacteria.

“They have colonized every environment, even extreme ones, and are diverse on continents but also in oceans,” Loron said. “Today, they play a crucial role in ecosystems where they are often associated with plants (symbioses) and favor their growth. They are also very good for soil regeneration and allow a better input of nutrients into the ground, important for microbial ecosystems.”

Loren said returns on the team’s findings have been mostly positive, some very enthusiastic, while others in the mycological community wanting more data and research done on the discovered microfossils.

“Research is a long process and things might change in the near future,” Loron said. “We think that more finding of Proterozoic fungi will come.”

Looking ahead, Loron said the next steps would include further investigation of the lower Shaler Supergroup, the series of interconnected lakes in Canada’s Northwest Territories, and then analyzing the microfossils to determine their order while learning about the placement of O. giraldae, named after retired lab technical Marcella Giraldo.

Screen Shot 2019-07-14 at 10.37.51 AM
The most ancient microfossils discovered yet came from a remote region of Northwest Territories. (Photo by Laurentian University Professor of Sedimentary Geology Elizabeth Turner)

Loren was joined by other University of Liege colleagues, as well as members of the Institut De Physique Du Globe De Paris (IPGP of Paris) in studying the microfossils under the supervision of UL Professor Emmanuelle Javaux.

Corentin Loron is currently working on his PhD thesis focused on the diversity and paleobiology of organic-walled microfossils from the Proterozoic of Arctic Canada.

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