A fossil dating from 440 million years ago is not only the oldest example of a fossilised fungus, but is also the oldest fossil of any land-dwelling organism yet found. The organism, and others like it, played a key role in laying the groundwork for more complex plants, and later animals, to exist on land by kick-starting the process of rot and soil formation, which is vital to all life on land.
This early pioneer, known as Tortotubus, displays a structure similar to one found in some modern fungi, which likely enabled it to store and transport nutrients through the process of decomposition. Although it cannot be said to be the first organism to have lived on land, it is the oldest fossil of a terrestrial organism yet found. The results are published in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society.
"During the period when this organism existed, life was almost entirely restricted to the oceans: nothing more complex than simple mossy and lichen-like plants had yet evolved on the land," said the paper's author Dr Martin Smith, who conducted the work while at the University of Cambridge's Department of Earth Sciences, and is now based at Durham University. "But before there could be flowering plants or trees, or the animals that depend on them, the processes of rot and soil formation needed to be established."
Working with a range of tiny microfossils from Sweden and Scotland, each shorter than a human hair is wide, Smith attempted to reconstruct the method of growth for two different types of fossils that were first identified in the 1980s. These fossils had once been thought to represent parts of two different organisms, but by identifying other fossils with 'in-between' forms, Smith was able to show that the fossils actually represented parts of a single organism at different stages of growth. By reconstructing how the organism grew, he was able to show that the fossils represent mycelium - the root-like filaments that fungi use to extract nutrients from soil.
It's difficult to pinpoint exactly when life first migrated from the seas to the land, since useful features in the fossil record that could help identify the earliest land colonisers are rare, but it is generally agreed that the transition started early in the Palaeozoic era, between 500 and 450 million years ago. But before any complex forms of life could live on land, there needed to be nutrients there to support them. Fungi played a key role in the move to land, since by kick-starting the rotting process, a layer of fertile soil could eventually be built up, enabling plants with root systems to establish themselves, which in turn could support animal life.