Paleontologists have identified a new genus and species of algae called Protocodium sinense that predates the origin of modern land plants and animals and provides new insight into the early diversification of the plant kingdom.
Discovered at a site in China, this 541-million-year-old fossil is the first and oldest green algae from that time to be preserved in three dimensions, allowing researchers to study its internal structure and identify the new specimen with unprecedented precision. The study is published today in BMC Biology, opening a window into a world of evolutionary puzzles that scientists are just beginning to solve.
“Protocodium belongs to a known lineage of green algae and has a surprisingly modern architecture, showing that these algae were already well diversified before the end of the Ediacaran period”, explains co-author Cédric Aria, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Ecology and devolution. Biology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at the University of Toronto and based at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). “His discovery touches on the origin of the entire plant kingdom and gives a familiar name to the organisms that predated the Cambrian Explosion more than half a billion years ago, when the world’s first modern ecosystems emerged. .”
The newly discovered Protocodium fossils were discovered by a team led by Hong Hua, professor of geology, and including Shu Chai, postdoctoral researcher, both from Northwest University, Xi’an, China. It is part of the Gaojiashan Biota, the name given to a large group of exceptionally well-preserved fossils in the Dengying Formation in southern Shaanxi Province. Over the past 20 years, this geological formation has yielded important fossil species documenting the end of the Ediacaran period 541 million years ago.
Organisms and their parts that do not originally absorb minerals—unlike shells or bones—require exceptional conditions to be preserved. In this case, the whole fossils and their fine cellular detail have been preserved in three dimensions by replacing the original organic matter with phosphate. This mode of preservation allowed researchers to use various electron and X-ray microscopy techniques to virtually slice the fossil, unveil its internal structure with precision, and ultimately identify it as a close relative of modern Codium algae, a type seaweed.
Protocodium fossils are small spheres half a millimeter wide, like large grains of pollen, covered with a multitude of smaller domes. Through 3D examination, the researchers determined that the domed surface was part of a complex single cell containing thin strands called siphons. This morphology is typical of some modern unicellular algae which contain many nuclei.
The discovery of Protocodium would call for caution when identifying generic spherical Ediacaran fossils and may imply that organisms like Codium are in fact much older and more widespread. The famous Doushantuo fossil embryos, also from China and preserved in 3D, have
been at the heart of debates on the deep origin of certain groups of animals. Specific stages of some of these animal-like embryos look like single-celled Protocodium on the outside, but 3D slicing reveals how they’re made up of many cells. On the other hand, numerous 2D round fossils of uncertain algae or other affinities are also known from the Ediacaran and earlier periods, but in less detail.
“We know that algae-like fossils are at least a billion years old,” says Chai, the study’s first author. “But until now, flat, grainy two-dimensional preservation has made it difficult to recognize other than general morphological structures.”
Green algae are photosynthetic organisms, which means they convert light and carbon dioxide into sugars and oxygen. They were therefore likely important foundations of Earth’s early ecosystems, and the study suggests that green algae were already established in the world’s shallow waters as carbon dioxide recyclers and oxygen producers before the explosion. Cambrian.
Apart from its small size, Protocodium looks surprisingly identical to modern Codium, a type of green algae found in many seas around the world. Some types of this seaweed are notoriously invasive, such as the fragile subspecies Codium tomentosoides, nicknamed “dead man’s fingers” for its appearance, and which spreads with commercially farmed shellfish. From an evolutionary perspective, green algae like ancient Protocodium and land plants share a common ancestor thought to be around a billion to a billion and a half years old, but now probably older – the attribution of Protocodium so close to a modern group pushes back in time the history of the entire plant kingdom.
“It’s very telling that such an organism remained virtually unchanged for at least 540 million years,” says Aria. “By the Ediacaran, evolution had brought him into a stable adaptive zone — he’s been comfortable there ever since, and more than that, quite successful. So much so, in fact, that nowadays Codium takes advantage of global trade to easily outcompete other species of algae.
Financial support for research and fieldwork came from the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the National Key Research and Development Program. The Aria Postdoctoral Fellowship is funded by the Albert and Barbara Milstein Foundations and the Polk Family (ROM) and the NSERC Discovery Grant awarded to Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron, Richard M. Ivey Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the ROM .