It's a fungus! Oldest land fossil found

Tortotubus fossils date back 440 million years, to a time when dry land was colonized

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Experts date the transition of aquatic organisms to dry land somewhere between 450 and 500 million years ago. Before plants and animals could take hold, there needed to be nutrients and soil to support them. Fungi are thought to have provided the necessary conditions.

Martin Smith, now at Durham University in the United Kingdom, reports on work he performed while at the University of Cambridge on the identification of the oldest fossil of a land organism, a fungus called Tortotubus protuberans, dating from the Silurean period of the Paleozoic era, about 440 million years ago. The work has been published in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society. The morphological characteristics and growth pattern indicate the existence of differentiated mycelium, reminiscent of those of higher fungi (Dykaria), although he did not find evidence of the existence of fruiting bodies.

Before Tortotubus or its ancestors colonized dry land, other simple organisms -probably bacteria and algae, of which there rarely is a fossil record- must have done so. They, would have provided food for this fungus, who in turn produced nitrogen and oxygen in the rudimentary soil.

This grandfather of fungi on dry land, smaller than the width of a human hair, was all over the news yesterday. Some of the coverage was in BBC News, Ars Technica, ABC News, Newsweek, Sci News, Voice of America... Not bad for a little fungus! And they say old is not beautiful...

Nonia Pariente

Chief Editor, Nature Microbiology

I come from a mid-sized city on the northwestern coast of Spain. My interest in science initially took me to Madrid, where I finished university and received a PhD in molecular biology. In Madrid, I studied RNA virus evolution and new antiviral strategies with Esteban Domingo. I then moved to UCLA, where I focused on developing lentiviral vectors for gene therapy in Irvin Chen’s laboratory. In 2007, I made the plunge from bench to desk and joined the EMBO Reports editorial team as Reviews Editor, becoming Scientific Editor two years later and Senior Editor in 2012. At EMBO Reports, I was responsible for microbiology and immunology, among other areas, and spent many years expanding my understanding and love for all things microbial. In the summer of 2015, I joined the Nature Microbiology editorial launch team, handling all things related to virology and mycology (and for a brief while parasitology) and -after a couple of stints covering microbiology at Nature- I became the Chief Editor of Nature Microbiology in 2019. I look forward to interacting with the community and providing a venue to publish the most important advances in the field.