Earth’s oldest ‘fungi’ found in South Africa

A recent scientific discovery in South Africa, ancient fungi-like fossils, have once again put the country on the map in the palaeontology field. It raises questions about the oldest fungi found, evolution, and whether scientists have been looking in the wrong places.

Northern Cape
Ancient fungi-like fossils have been found in South Africa’s Northern Cape. (Image: South African Tourism, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

Priya Pitamber

A group of international researchers have discovered fungi-like fossils in rocks dating back 2.4 billion years, in South Africa. This latest development once again displays the country’s central role in global scientific research.

The fossils were found in the Ongeluk Formation in the Northern Cape, which was under water at the time the organisms were alive.

“Unless they represent an unknown branch of fungus-like organisms, the fossils imply that the fungal clade is considerably older than previously thought, and that fungal origin and early evolution may lie in the oceanic deep biosphere rather than on land,” reads the researchers’ paper, published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. “The Ongeluk discovery suggests that life has inhabited submarine volcanics for more than 2.4 billion years.”

Significance

During a routine microscopic study of the lava, Professor Birger Rasmussen, from the Western Australian School of Mines at Curtin University, found the microfossils.

“I was looking for minerals to date the age of the rock when my attention was drawn to a series of vesicles and when I increased the magnification of the microscope I was startled to find what appeared to be exquisitely preserved fossilised microbes,” he said.

“It quickly became apparent that cavities within the volcanic rocks were once crawling with life.

“The new discovery has implications for the evolution of life on Earth, representing the earliest evidence of possible fungi by 1 to 2 billion years, and the earliest evidence of eukaryotic life by at least 500 million years,” Rasmussen said.

He hopes this research will be able to answer fundamental questions about evolution on Earth, and beyond.

Location

The fossils were found in rock formed from bubbly lava that was once upon a time, beneath the sea.

Professor Stefan Bengtson, from the Swedish Museum of Natural History, was the lead on the research team. He told the BBC that scientists previously looked for the oldest fossil fungi on land or in shallow seas, but never in the deep sea.

“The deep biosphere (where the fossils were found) represents a significant portion of the Earth, but we know very little about its biology and even less about its evolutionary history,” he said.

The research paper was co-authored by scientists from the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm.

Sources: BBC, Nature Ecology & Evolution, and Curtin University

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