Best of 2016 // #86: Turning Earth To Soil

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Turning Earth To Soil

Life on Earth 440 million years ago was very different: a grey-hued landscape of rocks and sand and dust, pretty inhospitable to life as we know it.  Somehow, one tiny fungus managed to help turn the arid planet into lush soils that we have today.  Now, scientists have finally figured out how.

/READ MORE// The First Flower

Scientists have known about the fungus in question, Tortotubus protuberans from separately fossilized specimens collected over the past 30 years.  After examining some newly found specimens, paleontologist Martin Smith at Durham University in England was able to reconstruct how the fungus grew, unveiling some special skills.

It’s all about something called a mycelial network.

All modern fungi have thread like roots, but Tortotubus appears to be the first known specimen to have developed them.  The roots, shorter than a human hair, absorb lichen, bacteria and algae that it finds just floating in the soil.  They then decompose and scatter the nutrients back into the earth.

As the fungus fed, it also nourished the soil around it, laying the groundwork for more complex organisms to evolve – everything from planets to worms.

Smith described the process in the March edition of Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, and he believes this process is what allowed the world we know to eventually bloom into the paradise we now live in.

There’s 99 more stories from 2016.  Check out the Best of 2016 series here

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