The Natural History Museum's fossil collections have unveiled the earliest disease-causing fungus, Potteromyces asteroxylicola, a 407-million-year-old fungal plant pathogen. In homage to Beatrix Potter, the renowned author of Tales of Peter Rabbit and a fervent fungi enthusiast, this newly discovered species sheds light on historical fungal interactions.
Published in Nature Communications under the title “A fungal plant pathogen discovered in the Devonian Rhynie Chert,” the research highlights Beatrix Potter's pioneering drawings and studies on fungi, which preceded scientific research by decades and earned her acclaim in mycology.
Potteromyces emerged from fossil samples at the Rhynie Chert in Scotland, a vital geological site preserving an Early Devonian community. Collaborating with mycologists at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the study suggests that disease-causing fungi, akin to those affecting the UK's ash trees, and nutrient-circulating fungi with implications for plant survival, find historical precedence in Potteromyces.
Lead author Dr. Christine Strullu-Derrien, Scientific Associate at the Natural History Museum, notes, “Potteromyces can provide a valuable point from which to date the evolution of different fungus groups, such as Ascomycota, the largest fungal phylum.”
The fungus was first discovered in 2015, showcasing distinctive conidiophores and an unprecedented attack on the ancient Asteroxylon mackiei plant. The plant's response, manifested in dome-shaped growths, indicated its vitality during the fungal assault. Confirmation of the new species came with the discovery of a second specimen in the collections of the National Museums of Scotland.
Dr. Strullu-Derrien emphasizes the contribution of technology, particularly confocal microscopy, in unraveling more secrets from fossils within museum collections. Despite over a decade of exploration, she believes there is still much to uncover at the remarkable Rhynie Chert site.
Source: Natural History Museum