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New ancient fungus finding suggests world's forests were wiped out in global catastrophe

Tiny organisms that covered the planet more than 250 million years ago appear to be a species of ancient fungus that thrived in dead wood, according to new research published today (Thursday 1 October 2009) in the journal Geology.

The researchers behind the study, from Imperial College London and other universities in the UK, USA and The Netherlands, believe that the organisms were able to thrive during this period because the world's forests had been wiped out. This would explain how the organisms, which are known as Reduviasporonites, were able to proliferate across the planet.

Researchers had previously been unsure as to whether Reduviasporonites were a type of fungus or algae. By analysing the carbon and nitrogen content of the fossilised remains of the microscopic organisms, the scientists identified them as a type of wood-rotting fungus that would have lived inside dead trees.

Fossil records of Reduviasporonites reveal chains of microscopic cells and reflect an organism that lived during the Permian-Triassic period, before the dinosaurs, when the Earth had one giant continent called Pangaea.

Geological records show that the Earth experienced a global catastrophe during this period. Basalt lava flows were unleashed on the continent from a location centred on what is present day Siberia. Up to 96 per cent of all marine species and 70 per cent of land species became extinct. Traditionally, scientists had thought that land plants weathered the catastrophe without much loss.

Today's findings suggest that much of the vegetation on Pangaea did not survive and that the world's forests were wiped out, according to the researchers. Geological records show that there was a massive spike in the population of Reduviasporonites across Pangea as the Permian period came to an end. The scientists suggest that this means that there was in increase in the supply of wood for them to decay.

Professor Mark Sephton, one of the authors of the study from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, comments:

"Our study shows that neither plant nor animal life escaped the impact of this global catastrophe. Ironically, the worst imaginable conditions for plant and animal species provided the best possible conditions for the fungi to flourish."

The team suggest that the basalt lava, which flowed during Permian-Triassic catastrophe, unleashed toxic gases into the air. The gases had a dual effect, producing acid rain and depleting the ozone layer. The outcome was the destruction of forests, providing enough rotting vegetation to nourish Reduviasporonites so that they could proliferate across Pangaea.

The team reached their conclusions by analysing the carbon and nitrogen content of Reduviasporonites using a High Sensitivity Mass Spectrometer and comparing the results with those from modern fungi. They discovered that Reduviasporonites and modern fungi show similar chemical characteristics.

In the future, the team plan to carry out further comparisons between Reduviasporonites and potential counterparts among modern fungi, which they hope will provide further clues about how Reduviasporonites lived.

For further information please contact:

Colin Smith
Press Officer
Imperial College London
Tel: +44 (0)207 594 6712
Out of hours duty press officer: +44 (0)7803 886 248
Notes to editors:
1. "Chemical constitution of a Permian-Triassic disaster species", Geology, October 2009; v. 37; no. 10; p. 875� doi: 10.1130/G30096A.1
Mark A. Sephton (1), Henk Visscher (2), Cindy V. Looy (3), Alexander B. Verchovsky (4), and Jonathan S. Watson (4)
(1) Department of Earth Science and Engineering, Imperial College London
(2) Institute of Environmental biology, Faculty of Science, Utrecht University, The Netherlands
(3) Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA

(4) Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute, Open University, Milton Keynes, UK

2. About Imperial College London

Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 13,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality.

Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.

Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve health in the UK and globally, tackle climate change and develop clean and sustainable sources of energy.

Colin Smith | EurekAlert!
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