If the entirety of earth’s history was compressed to one 24-hour day, humans would have existed for just one second.
Fungi, on the other hand, likely evolved as long as 18 hours and 40 minutes ago.
In fact, a recent study that analyzed ancient rocks with fossilized mycelium in the Democratic Republic of the Congo dated the fossils to between 715 and 810 million years old — 300 million years older than previously thought.
The Grand Leap
Regardless of what modern day paleomycology has and has yet to discover, nothing should come as a surprise when it comes to fungi.
The vast array of chytrids, ascomycota, and basidiomycota in deep sea hydrothermal vents have for a longtime suggested that the major fungal phyla diversified long ago in prehistoric oceans, not land. In fact, many believe fungi are to thank for the fateful and fruitful leap biological life took out of the oceans and seas and onto the land hundreds of millions of years ago.
It’s believed that plants evolved approximately 1 billion years ago when a eukaryotic cell engulfed a photosynthesizing cyanobacterium, forming a beneficial endosymbiosis that served as the foundation for plant life to flourish.
Yet half a billion years before that event, it’s theorized that fungi came into being, with the earliest fungal ancestors most likely living in water. It wasn’t until 500 million years ago that fungi truly began colonizing the terrestrial world, eventually becoming abundant and perhaps even the dominant form of earthly life about 250 million years ago.
This fungal fossil record and timeline is interesting for a number of reasons. For one, the mushrooms you see on the forest floor today are the same mushrooms dinosaurs likely encountered. For two, it supports the theory of the existence of massive mushrooms called prototaxites, which existed for 70 million years and were by far the largest organism on the planet during their reign — 420 million years ago to around 350 million years ago.
Fungi Are Family
Given the predominance of fungi on earth, perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that you share 80-85% of your ribosomal DNA with fungi. Recent genetic research has even found that animals and humans contain more fungal DNA than originally thought, and that this DNA was horizontally-acquired, meaning it is not derived from mutation but from copying during interactions with fungi and other microbes. In other words, we’re all part fungi!
Spores in Space
Living fungal spores have been discovered in every level of earth’s atmosphere, are electron dense, contain a metallic-like outer layer that is among the hardest organic compounds existing in nature, and reflect ultraviolet light with its naturally purple hue. In other words, spores are perfectly designed to survive the vacuum of space.
Famed ethnobotanist Terrence McKenna even went so far as to theorize that fungi were proof of a highly evolved and intelligent extraterrestrial life form that may have used spores to colonize the galaxy.
So, how old are mushrooms?
The short answer: we have no idea but they’re way older than our human brains can even begin to fathom.