If the research holds, it would dramatically change “our sense of the timetable of evolutionary history,” said Andrew H. Knoll, Fisher Professor of Natural History at Harvard University.
Knoll, however, remains cautious.
“Without actually having seen [the research], and giving them the benefit of the doubt, I wouldn't immediately rule out the idea that they are correct in their interpretation,” he said.
He is skeptical about the timeframe. A fungus is a eukaryote — an organism with a complex cell structure that needs oxygen. A 2.4 billion-year-old fungus-like eukaryote would have been using oxygen at nearly the same time scientists think oxygen first appeared in notable amounts on the planet.
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Knoll said he thinks it’s likelier the earliest fungi emerged about 1.5 billion years later than the organisms the Swedish group found.
“I look forward to seeing [the research] when it comes out and we'll see what happens,” he said.
Doug Erwin, curator of Paleozoic invertebrates at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, said he is skeptical.
“[The discovery], if accurate, would be surprising as it would significantly precede fossil evidence and molecular clock analysis for the origin of eukaryotes, much less the origin of fungi,” he said.
This is the second major announcement in ancient evolutionary research from Bengtson and the Swedish Museum of Natural History in two months. In March, another group he led announced finding multi-cellular plant fossils in India that they claim pre-dated any other similar specimens by 400 million years.
“Luck,” Bengtson said, “favors the prepared mind.”
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