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Why Does Old Fungi Matter?

fungi under a microscope
(Image: Getty Images)

Let’s talk about something that is commonly associated with some Bonnaroo festival goers, vital to the diets of video game characters Mario and Luigi, and is one of nature’s best trash compactors…I’m talking about fungi folks! We're not talking about some fungus that popped up after some rain, we're talking about some really really old fungi fossil remains. This brings up the next big though, why does old fungi matter?

Scientists have recently announced the discovery of fossil remains of some pretty old fungi that's making them look at the world in a whole different way. No, they didn’t eat it, they studied it! 

This fungi fossil was discovered in a remote part of the Canadian Arctic and is dated back to  one billion years! That’s right, a billion years old. Before this the earliest evidence of fungi dates back about 500 million years, now this discovery pushed it back another 500 million years!

This discovery now puts fungi as being present on Earth during the  mid-proterozoic. So, why’s this a big deal? Fungi play a very important  role in the natural world. They break down and decompose dead things which in turn creates the nutrients needed to facilitate other life, especially plants and trees. The discovery of a billion-year-old fungi means we have to reapproach what we thought that life was like a billion years ago. If fungi are present on Earth a billion years ago then it will help scientists better understand if they did or did not facilitate the mechanics which allowed plants to move onto land. 

The other thing that this discovery does is gives scientists a whole different look at what our landscapes could have been like back then. Currently, the timeline of life on Earth has the  Cambrian explosion at 540 million years ago, when vast varieties of life developed on Earth in a relatively short time. This discovery is giving scientists a reason to ponder if perhaps life and landscapes were more mature and intricate than we used to think. 

Having a complete picture of the past also helps scientists better understand today’s world as well, a very vital task - connecting the missing puzzle pieces. 

Regardless, for now, we have evidence of the  oldest fossil of fungi ever found, a whopping one billion years old, but I swear if you look at it in the right light, it doesn’t look a day over 999 million years old.

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