Billion-year-old fossils may be early fungus

Image of a ball on a stalk.

Enlarge (credit:
Loron, et. al.
)

When did the first complex multicellular life arise? Most
people, being a bit self-centered, would point to the Ediacaran and
Cambrian, when the first animal life appeared and then diversified.
Yet studies of DNA suggest that fungi may have originated far
earlier than animals.

When it comes to a fossil record, however, things are rather
sparse. No unambiguous evidence of a fungus appears in fossils
until after the Cambrian was over. A few things from earlier may
have looked fungus-like, but the evidence was limited to their
appearance. It could be that fungi branched off at the time
suggested by the DNA but didn’t evolve complex, multicellular
structures until later. Alternatively, the fossils could be right,
and there’s something off about the DNA data. Or, finally, it could
be that we simply haven’t found old enough fossils yet.

A new paper out in today’s Nature argues strongly for the last
option. In it, a small team of researchers describe fossils of what
appear to be fungi that could be up to a billion years old. And the
researchers back up the appearance with a chemical analysis.

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Billion-year-old fossils may be early fungus