Fossils may be earliest known multicellular life

Fossils accidentally discovered in South Africa are probably the oldest fungi ever found by a margin of 1.2 billion years, rewriting the evolutionary story of these organisms which are neither flora nor fauna, researchers said Monday.
If verified as both fungal and multicellular, the 2.4 billion-year-old microscopic creatures — whose slender filaments are bundled together like brooms — could also be the earliest known specimens of the branch of life to which humans belong, they reported in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
Up to now, the first fossil trace of eukaryotes — the “superkingdom” that includes plants, animals and fungi, but not bacteria — dates to only 1.9 billion years ago.
Earth itself is about 4.6 billion years old.
The ancient fungus-like life forms, found in fossilised gas bubbles 800 metres (2,600 feet) underground in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province, are remarkable not just for their age but their origin, the researchers said.
It has long been assumed that fungi first emerged on land, but the newly-found organisms lived and thrived under an ancient ocean seabed, tucked in the crevices of volcanic rock.
Nobody was looking for them, explained co-author Birger Rasmussen, a geology professor at Curtin University in Bentley, Australia who was examining lava samples from the Ongeluk Formation to determine their age. — AFP