New research indicates lichens may not have arrived on land before vascular plants.
You’ve probably seen a lichen, even if you didn’t realize it. If you’ve ever meandered through the forest and wondered what the crusty stuff on trees or rocks was, they’re lichens, a combination of algae and fungi living together almost as if they were one organism. And since they can grow on bare rocks, scientists thought that lichens were some of the first organisms to make their way onto land from the water, changing the planet’s atmosphere and paving the way for modern plants. A new study in Geobiology upends this history by delving deep into the DNA of the algae and fungi that form lichens and showing the lichens likely evolved millions of years after plants.
“When we look at modern ecosystems, and we see a bare surface like a rock, oftentimes lichens are the first thing to grow there, and eventually you'll get plants growing on there too,” says Matthew Nelsen, lead author of the paper and a research scientist at the Field Museum. “People have thought that maybe that's the way ancient colonization of land worked, but we're seeing that these lichens actually came later in the game than plants.”
Four hundred and eighty-five million years ago, Earth was very different from what we see today. Hardly anything lived on land. But lichens can live in extreme conditions. They can grow on bare rocks and break them down, helping to create the soil needed by complex plants with roots (called “vascular plants”). Scientists thought that lichens must have arrived on land before the vascular plants did and made the environment more hospitable. But Nelsen and his colleagues’ work calls this timeline into question.
Continue reading at Field Museum
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