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The Origin of Fungi and Its Move to Land

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Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

Fungi are organisms scientists theorize evolved from an aquatic environment before migrating to land. Learn about the origin of fungi and understand how they may have adapted to living on land by forming symbiotic relationships with plants. Updated: 11/09/2021

The Origin of Fungi

Look at the three images on your screen. From left to right is a plant, fungus, and animal. Look at another set of images. Again, from left to right is the microscopic structure of a plant, fungus, and animal. Based off of these photos, do you think that a fungus is more closely related to a plant or to an animal? The answer may surprise you: fungi are more closely related to animals than they are to plants, despite their appearance.

Plant, fungus, and animal
3fungi

However, DNA and other molecular analyses have shown us that fungi are even more closely related to unicellular protists than animals. In fact, both fungi and animals evolved from unicellular protists, although they evolved to become multicellular organisms independently of one another. These ancestors diverged from one another around one to one and a half billion years ago.

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  • 0:01 The Origin of Fungi
  • 0:51 Fungi on Land
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Fungi on Land

It's a matter of debate right now whether fungi first evolved in an aquatic environment or on land. The prevalent belief among biologists right now is that fungi evolved in water, but the oldest fossils of fungi are those that have been found on land.

The reason it's so hard for us to figure what happened when and where with fungi is because fungal structures preserve very poorly as fossils, unlike bone for example. On top of that, fungal morphology is many times so broad or vague that it's difficult to tell in a fossil whether or not an observed structure was indeed part of a fungus or another living organism altogether.

What we can say with more certainty is that the earliest life on land was probably characterized by lots of green slime all over the place. This green slime was a mixture of algae, cyanobacteria, as well as fungi. This means fungi likely colonized land before plants.

It is believed by some biologists that the world's first very large terrestrial organisms were actually multi-cellular fungi that grew as massive tree-trunk-like organisms, up to 26 feet tall, dwarfing the plants and other living organisms around them. They were able to grow to such large sizes by feeding off of the large amounts of living matter, as well as debris of everything from bacteria to algae to early plants that had accumulated over billions of years.

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