Canadian Arctic yields world’s oldest fungi

microscopic multicellular Ourasphaira giraldae The microscopic multicellular Ourasphaira giraldae, thought to be the earliest fungus yet discovered. Photo courtesy of C.C Loron, University of Liège

There was little about that particular shale specimen in 2014 that led Robert Rainbird, a research scientist with the Canadian Geological Survey, to suspect it would set the scientific world abuzz a few years later. Sure it had black flecks on it, which Rainbird knew could be an indication of organic matter, but he’d seen those before. For more than three decades, Rainbird had been visiting this remote region in the Canadian Arctic, within a national park which had, according to Rainbird, maybe 10 visitors a year.

Microbiology is not his wheelhouse, however, so he passed his specimens along to a paleontologist with the University of Liège in Belgium, Emmanuelle Javaux, who subsequently passed them along to a graduate student of hers, Corentin Loron.

What Loron discovered, after washing the specimens in an acid bath to strip out the minerals, was a fungi estimated to be close to one billion years old, twice as old as the previously known confirmed occurrence of fungi in a rock record, says Rainbird.

The discovery shifts scientists’ understanding of when plants and fungi made their way onto land. Until this discovery, it was widely held that fungi and plants were ecological partners, each helping provide what the other needed to survive. But with fungi roughly a billion years old, it’s something of a mystery, without plants, what it fed on.

While scientists continue to investigate, Rainbird is at work on a project closer to home for cottagers. Together with a graduate student, he’s exploring the more than two-billion-year-old geology around Lake Temagami. Specifically, he says “we’re looking for evidence for the buildup of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere at that time”­—this evidence takes the form of red sandstones—which would tell us where and when might have been the starting point for life on earth. In other words, wow.

He urges cottages to dig around, literally, in their own backyards. If you find something interesting, call a geological organization and share your discovery. “[Cottagers will] be pleasantly surprised that people like me are happy to help them out and tell them a bit about what’s at their cottages,” he says.

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