New research by Shuhai Xiao, a professor at Virginia Tech College, and Tian Gan, a visiting Ph.D., explain the role mushrooms have played throughout Earth’s history. For example, helping the planet recover from the ice age.
A team of scientists from Virginia, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Guizhou University (GZU) and the University of Cincinnati have discovered fossilized remains of microfossils that arose at the end of the Ice Age, about 635 million years ago. It is the oldest earthly fossil ever found. For comparison, these mushrooms appeared before the most ancient dinosaurs, the time difference exceeds three times.
The fossil was found in small cavities of dolomite sedimentary rocks in the lowest layer of the Doushanto Formation in southern China. It is very well studied and scientists did not expect to find any fossils at the bottom of the rock. And yet, Tian Gan, one of the authors of the study was able to find several long plant fibers – one of the key characteristics of mushrooms.
This discovery is the key to understanding many turning points throughout the history of the Earth: the Ediacaran period and the Earth transformation of mushrooms.
When Ediacaran began, the planet was recovering from a disastrous ice age. At that time, the ocean surface was frozen at a depth of over a kilometer. Such an environment was extremely harsh for almost any living organism, with the exception of a few microscopic life forms that managed to thrive. Scientists have long wondered how life got back to normal and how the biosphere was able to get bigger and more complex than ever before.
After conducting the research, the scientists concluded that microscopic fungi played important roles in the restoration of the earth’s environment during the Ediacaran time. One of them was their powerful digestive system.
In fungi, it is quite unique and plays an even greater role in the cycle of vital nutrients. Using enzymes released into the environment, terrestrial fungi can chemically break down rocks and other solid organic matter, which can then be processed and exported to the ocean. Such processes and help the Earth to recover, scientists are sure.
While previous evidence indicated that terrestrial plants and fungi formed a symbiotic relationship some 400 million years ago, the new discovery changed the timeline and provided new evidence for when the two kingdoms colonized the earth.