Today our world is visually dominated by animals and plants, but this world would not have been possible without fungi, say University of Leeds scientists.
Researchers have carried out experiments where plants and fungi are grown in atmospheres resembling the ancient Earth and, by incorporating their results into computer models, have shown that fungi were essential in the creation of an oxygen-rich atmosphere.
Humans and other mammals require high levels of oxygen to function, and it is generally thought that the planet developed an oxygen-rich atmosphere around 500 to 400 million years ago, as carbon dioxide was gradually photosynthesised by the first land plants.
The new research shows that the amount of phosphorus transferred could have been very large under the ancient atmospheric conditions, and, using an "Earth system" computer model, the team show that fungi had the power to dramatically alter the ancient atmosphere.
The "soil" they came into contact with was a mineral product lacking in organic matter, which is why their relationships with fungi were so important.
Fungi have the ability to extract minerals from the rocks they grow on through a process known as biological weathering. The fungi express organic acids which help to dissolve the rocks and mineral grains they grow across.
By extracting these minerals and passing them on to plants to aid the plants’ growth, the fungi in return received the carbon the plants produced as they photosynthesised carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
In turn this affected the speed at which the atmosphere changed from being much more rich in carbon dioxide to becoming similar to the air we breathe today.
Dr Field said: “We used a computer model to simulate what might have happened to the climate throughout the Palaeozoic era if the different types of early plant-fungal symbioses were included in the global phosphorus and carbon cycles.
“We found the effect was potentially dramatic, with the differences in plant-fungal carbon-for-nutrient exchange greatly altering Earth’s climate through plant-powered drawdown of CO2 for photosynthesis, substantially changing the timing of the rise of oxygen in the atmosphere.”
Dr Mills said: “Photosynthesis by land plants is ultimately responsible for about half of the oxygen generation on Earth, and requires phosphorus, but we currently have a poor understanding of how the global supply of this nutrient to plants works.
“The results of including data on fungal interactions present a significant advance in our understanding of the Earth’s early development. Our work clearly shows the importance of fungi in the creation of an oxygenated atmosphere.”
Dr Batterman added: “Our study shows tiny organisms such as fungi can have major effects on the global environment. Our critical finding was that the nature of the relationship between fungi and plants could have transformed the atmospheric carbon dioxide, oxygen and ultimately global climate in very different ways, depending on the type of fungi present.”
The research team is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
The above picture shows the Rhynie Chert in Scotland, where many prehistoric fungi which still survive today can be found.
Helen Miller, Innovate UK (Apr 2018), £999,960
Elisabetta Groppelli, David Rowlands & Stanley Lemon (University of North Carolina), Medical Research Foundation Fellowship (Apr 2018), £293,494
Nikesh Patel, Medical Research Foundation fellowship (Apr 2018), £290,976
Jessica Kwok & Ralf Richter, Leverhulme Trust (Apr 2018), £298,273
Julie Aspden, Royal Society (Apr 2018), £20,000
Liz Duncan, Royal Society (Mar 2018), £14,602
Alex O'Neill & Ryan Seipke, BBSRC (Feb 2018), £45,489
Jim Deuchars, Royal Society (Feb 2018), £16,300
Stefan Kepinski & Netta Cohen, Leverhulme Trust (Feb 2018), £320,387
Lisa Collins, BBSRC (Feb 2018), £49,950
Lars Jeuken, BBSRC (Feb 2018), £30,000
Nikita Gamper, BBSRC (Feb 2018), £30,000
Alison Baker, BBSRC (Feb 2018), £30,000
Scott Bowen, Leducq Foundation Grant (Feb 2018), £28,470
Jessica Kwok and Ronaldo Ichiyama, International Spinal Research Trust (Feb 2018), £94,450
Alex O'Neill, Oxford Drug Design (Jan 2018), £86,098
Dave Lewis and Colleagues in South Africa, HEFCE Global Challenge Research (Jan 2018), £48,000
Sarah Calaghan, Ed White, John Colyer, Isuru Jayasinghe, BHF (Jan 2018), £128,308
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Alison Baker, Yun Yung Gong and Lindsay Stringer and ICRISAT India, HEFCE GCRF Grant (Jan 2018), £27,000
Graham Askew, Simon Walker, BBSRC (Jan 2018), £699,781
Jennifer Tomlinson, Royal Society (Jan 2018), £512,801
Alison Dunn, NERC (Dec 2017), £18,000
Jennifer Tomlinson, Royal Society-Research Fellows Enhancement Award (Dec 2017), £94,681
Helen Miller, AB AGri Grant (Dec 2017), £73,600
Simon Walker, Royal Society Enhancement Award (Dec 2017), £10,000
Carrie Ferguson, Bryan Taylor, Harry Rossiter, The Physiological Society (Dec 2017), £7,392
Ralf Richter, Royal Society (Dec 2017), £6,000
Christine Foyer, British Council Newton Fund (Dec 2017), £49,840
Adrian Whitehouse and colleagues in School of Chemistry and University of Liverpool, MRC (Nov 2017), £622,319
Michelle Peckham, Neil Ransom, MRC (Nov 2017), £495,159
Dave Lewis, British Council India (Nov 2017), £22,540
Elton Zeqiraj, Royal Society (Nov 2017), £15,000
Hannah Dugdale, Royal Society (Nov 2017), £15,000
Shaunna Burke, Cancer Research UK Innovation Grant (Nov 2017), £20,000
Alex O'Neill and colleagues in Chemistry, BBSRC (Nov 2017), £431,865
Jessica Kwok, Wings for Life (Nov 2017), £87,365
Tom Bennett, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £523,679
Neil Ranson, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £494,318
Nikita Gamper, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £490,426
Amanda Bretman and colleagues from UEA, NERC (Oct 2017), £430,886
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Helen Miller, DSM Nutritional Products AG (Sep 2017), £69,988
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Jamie Johnston, Physiological Society (Sep 2017), £10,000
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Ralf Richter, David Brockwell, Eric Hewitt, Jessica Kwok, Emanuele Paci and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £600,000
Eric Blair, Adrian Whitehouse, Nicola Stonehouse, Alison Baker, Richard Bayliss, Joan Boyes, Ryan Seipke, Sally Boxall and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £376,000
Stefan Kepinski, Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso, Tom Bennett, Michelle Peckham, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £331,000
Roman Tuma, Lars Jeuken, Paul Millner, Sheena Radford, Peter Stockley and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £222,000
Vas Ponnambalam, Darren Tomlinson, Stephen Wheatcroft, BHF (May 2017), £107,878