THE LARGEST genetic study ever performed to learn when land plants and fungi first appeared on the Earth has revealed a plausible biological cause for two major climate events: the Snowball Earth eras, when ice periodically covered the globe, and the era called the Cambrian Explosion, which produced the first fossils of almost all major categories of animals living today.
According to the authors of the study, Science, plants paved the way for the evolution of land animals by simultaneously increasing the percentage of oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere and decreasing the percentage of carbon dioxide, a powerful greenhouse gas.
"Our research shows that land plants and fungi evolved much earlier than previously thought--before the Snowball Earth and Cambrian Explosion events--suggesting their presence could have had a profound effect on the climate and the evolution of life on Earth," says Blair Hedges, an evolutionary biologist and leader of the Penn State research team that performed the study.
The researchers found that land plants had evolved on Earth by about 700 million years ago and land fungi by about 1,300 million years ago--much earlier than previous estimates of around 480 million years ago, which were based on the earliest fossils of those organisms.
Prior to this study, it was believed that Earth's landscape at that time was covered with barren rocks harboring nothing more than some bacteria and possibly some algae.
No undisputed fossils of the earliest land plants and fungi have been found in rocks formed during the Precambrian period, says Hedges, possibly because their primitive bodies were too soft to turn into fossils.The early appearance on the land of fungi and plants suggests their plausible role in both the mysterious lowering of the Earth's surface temperature during the series of Snowball Earth events roughly 750 million to 580 million years ago and the sudden appearance of many new species of...