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Tree of Life Discovery: Marine Fungi Branched Out, Says New Study

Dec 15, 2015 01:31 PM EST
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Scientists have discovered several new species of marine fungi that are so remarkably different in genetic makeup from other fungi that they represent original branches on the tree of life.

A team of researchers from the University of Exeter set out to study the expanse and diversity of marine fungi, because we have had a general shortage of knowledge of that group in the world's oceans. The exploration revealed just how distinctive marine fungi are from their terrestrial relatives.

Fungal microbes from varying saltwater habitats were collected and large-scale DNA sequencing was used to measure the diversity of fungi in marine environments. The study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, demonstrated that genetic variety and abundance was much lower in marine fungi than in terrestrial fungi. This finding indicates that the majority of evolutionary diversification in fungi took place on land, according to the researchers.

"Compared to their land-based counterparts, little is known about the diversity and function of fungi in the oceans," lead author Professor Thomas Richards said in a statement. "We identified more than 70 marine fungi and in doing so we discovered several previously undescribed groups that are so genetically different from others we know of that they must represent highly unique branches on the tree of life."

Despite low diversity, so little is known of marine fungi that further sampling will likely reveal even more undiscovered species. The analysis of new marine fungi will provide scientists with an enhanced understanding of how fungi interact within their marine environment and when and how fungi changed over from wholly aquatic to land-based.

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-Follow Catherine on Twitter @TreesWhales

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