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Newly Discovered World’s Oldest Fungus in South Africa Raises Questions About Early Life on Earth

Apr 27, 2017 10:49 AM EDT
Did fungi pop up billions of years earlier than we thought?
(Photo : Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The discovery of a 2.4 billion-year-old fungi-like lifeforms may be an accident, but it could lead to major scientific breakthroughs.

According to a report from The West Australian, professor Birger Rasmussen from the West Australian School of Mines at Curtin University was the one who stumbled on the microfossils as he was studying rocks in South Africa. It was pure accident that led him to the discovery.

"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," Rasmussen said, adding that he took photographs upon seeing the ancient microbes.

A year later, the professor visited a group of researchers from the Swedish Museum of Natural History who had been studying cavity-dwelling fungi in modern basalt rocks. Plans of an extension were in discussion when Rasmussen showed them his photographs, shocking the team in Stockholm.

The scientists' surprise was due to the fact that the microfossils suggest that fungi existed on Earth around two billion years earlier than scientists initially believed. It also brought up questions on the widely-accepted belief that fungi evolved on land. Rather, it could have come from the depths of the ocean, a report from BBC News revealed. Scientists could have been looking in the wrong place for the oldest fossil fungi.

"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," Bengtson explained.

Rasmussen will be exploring other sites in West Austalia that features some of the world's oldest rocks in hopes of finding out more about this organism. In the future, scientists could even explore the volcanic rocks on Mars to see if there are traces of similar life forms.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

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