If you’re a regular reader of ours you’ll know that we sometimes like to wander off the beaten track and explore wider topics around gardening, ecology, and even life on other planets.
You may also remember an article featuring lichen that we wrote a few months ago, it concerned their extreme hardiness and ability to adapt and thrive in the most hostile environments imaginable.
Today we’re revisting these tenacious flora but instead of unpacking their potential beyond the stars, we’re celebrating the impact they’ve had here on earth.
Our investigation begins over a century ago with one Simon Schwendener, a Swiss botanist who was the first to propose that lichen were in fact a composite organism made up of the union between fungus and alga.
Although Schwendener was initially dismissed by his contemporaries, history has vindicated him and now it’s well-documented that many species of both plants and animals share a symbiotic relationship with fungi.
Modern thinking suggests that the natural world is more interdependent then we’d ever thought possible however recent findings in the study of plant/fungi interactions have revealed something even more astounding, it seems that all plants first began life on land through a fusion with fungi.
Gather round and hear a tale of mutual survival and evolution….
A New Origin Story
Hundreds of millions of years ago, before humans, before dinosaurs, and before trees, the first algae washed onto the shores of our untouched world.
Although the oceans were, by now, teeming with the first complex lifeforms – themselves also the result of symbiosis – the land was a vast expanse of barren rock under a heavy sky of Hydrogen, Nitrogen, and Carbon Dioxide.
When the algae landed they had an impossible task ahead of them, there was no top soil at that time and they had not yet evolved roots to use it even if there had been.
However, certain fungi had, and still have, the ability to burrow into solid rock using intense pressure and acidic compounds and to then break it down, thereby releasing the nutrients within.
It was an all-you-can-eat if you were a fungi but they had one problem, there was no way for them to obtain the energy they would need to grow in order to digest the rock in the first place. Algae, on the other hand, were already masters of photosynthesis and those who had made it to the surface now had more sunlight than they knew what to do with.
Thus, an alliance was born, the algae would provide the energy in the form of sugars created by processing sunlight, and fungi would provide the nutrients the algae needed to survive.
Over the next half a billion years this partnership allowed the first complex plants to flourish, as well as the first essential layers of topsoil to develop that would support forests, grasslands, jungles, and eventually animal life.
The symbiosis continues to this day with the mycelial network – a web of fungal threads that interconnects practically every land-based plant on Earth – forming the foundation of our terrestrial ecosystems.
And to think… It all started with a single algae, a single fungi, and perhaps a microbial bottle of wine.