It is no secret we TreeHuggers are big fungi geeks, and for good reason. Not only do they help maintain soil and plant health, they can help clean up pollution, act as building materials, besides tasting good and possibly saving the world.
Now researchers have discovered what they believe is the oldest known specimen of a mushroom, dating back a whopping 115 millions years. Found in northeastern Brazil's Crato Formation, this fossilized mushroom is an incredibly rare find, since previous ancient specimens of fungi, of which there are approximately ten, are typically encased in amber. As Illinois Natural History Survey paleontologist Sam Heads explains on ScienceDaily:
Most mushrooms grow and are gone within a few days. The fact that this mushroom was preserved at all is just astonishing. When you think about it, the chances of this thing being here -- the hurdles it had to overcome to get from where it was growing into the lagoon, be mineralized and preserved for 115 million years -- have to be minuscule.
As detailed in the researchers' published report in the journal PLOS ONE, this mushroom would have flourished on the ancient supercontinent Gondwana. After falling into a river, it found its way into a highly saline lagoon, slowly sinking into the water and gradually becoming covered in layers of sediment. The dead mushroom was mineralized over many years, its tissues replaced with iron pyrite, which ultimately converted into goethite.
This latest find measures about 5 centimeters (2 inches) in size. Using an electron microscope, the scientists were able to see that the mushroom had gills under its cap, which help to reproduce by releasing spores into the air.
Heads and his colleague Andrew Miller, the paper's co-author and an expert in ancient plant life and mushrooms, aren't sure how to exactly biologically classify this fossilized mushroom, but they hypothesize that it may belong to the family of Strophariacae (the same family of mushrooms that include the versatile compost-facilitating, coliform-killing and edible King Stropharia). Looking at the bigger picture, mushrooms were integral to the evolution of this planet, and will continue to be, says Miller:
Fungi evolved before land plants and are responsible for the transition of plants from an aquatic to a terrestrial environment. Associations formed between the fungal hyphae and plant roots. The fungi shuttled water and nutrients to the plants, which enabled land plants to adapt to a dry, nutrient-poor soil, and the plants fed sugars to the fungi through photosynthesis. This association still exists today.
Read more over at PLOS ONE.