The world’s oldest algae fossils are a billion years old, according to a study which found that the basis for photosynthesis in today’s plants was set in place 1.25 billion years ago. The study, published in the journal Geology, may resolve a long-standing mystery over the age of the fossilised algae, Bangiomorpha pubescens, which were first discovered in rocks in Arctic Canada in 1990. The microscopic organism is believed to be the oldest known direct ancestor of modern plants and animals, but it was poorly dated, with estimates placing it somewhere between 720 million and 1.2 billion years. The findings also add to recent evidence that an interval of Earth’s history often referred to as the ‘Boring Billion’ may not have been so boring, after all. From 1.8 to 0.8 billion years ago, archaea, bacteria and a handful of complex organisms that have since gone extinct milled about the planet’s oceans, with little biological or environmental change to show for it.
In fact, that era may have set the stage for the proliferation of more complex life forms that culminated 541 million years ago with the so-called Cambrian Explosion. “Evidence is beginning to build to suggest that Earth’s biosphere and its environment in the latter portion of the ‘Boring Billion’ may actually have been more dynamic than previously thought,” said Timothy Gibson, PhD student at McGill University in Canada.
To pinpoint the fossils’ age, researchers camped at the remote Baffin Island, where Bangiomorpha pubescens fossils have been found. They collected samples of black shale from rock layers that sandwiched the rock unit containing fossils of the algae.
Using a dating technique, they determined that the rocks are 1.047 billion years old. “That’s 150 million years younger than commonly held estimates, and confirms that this fossil is spectacular,” said Galen Halverson, associate professor at McGill’s. This will enable scientists to make more precise assessments of the early evolution of eukaryotes – the celled organisms that include plants and animals.
Since Bangiomorpha pubescens is nearly identical to modern red algae, scientists have previously determined that the ancient alga, like green plants, used sunlight to synthesise nutrients from carbon dioxide and water. Scientists have also established that the chloroplast, the structure in plant cells that is the site of photosynthesis, was created when a eukaryote long ago engulfed a simple bacterium that was photosynthetic.
The eukaryote then managed to pass that DNA along to its descendants, including the plants and trees that produce most of the world’s biomass today.
Once the researchers had gauged the fossils’ age at 1.047 billion years, they plugged that figure into a “molecular clock,” a computer model used to calculate evolutionary events based on rates of genetic mutations. They concluded the chloroplast must have been incorporated into eukaryotes roughly 1.25 billion years ago.