In a recent study published in Nature Communications, scientists have reported a significant discovery from the Devonian period, over 407 million years ago. The Rhynie Chert in Scotland, known for its well-preserved fossils, has yielded a new find: a fossil of a fungal plant pathogen, named Potteromyces asteroxylicola. This fungus, belonging to the Dikarya subkingdom, specifically the Ascomycota phylum, was found invading the ancient plant Asteroxylon mackiei.
The discovery through the Natural History Museum is remarkable as it provides evidence of complex fungal-plant interactions dating back hundreds of millions of years. Potteromyces asteroxylicola is distinguished by its asexual spores and its effect on the host plant. This particular fungus is the earliest disease-causing fungus ever discovered and this interaction gives us new insights into the early evolution of disease-related relationships in terrestrial ecosystems.
Its location in the Rhynie Chert is notable to the study, too. Dr Christine Strullu-Derrien, the lead author of the study told the Natural History Museum, “The Rhynie Chert holds some of the best preserved fossils of early fungi, plants and arthropods anywhere in the world, and is especially important for capturing the moment when many species were starting to colonize the land.”
The study of this ancient fungus challenges current understandings of fungal evolution, as it does not easily align with any existing taxonomic groups within the Ascomycota. This finding expands the known diversity of early terrestrial life and underscores the ecological complexity of these ancient ecosystems.
On the connection between the fungus and the name, Dr Christine Strullu-Derrien, the lead author of the study told the Natural History Museum:
“Beatrix Potter’s work wasn’t recognized in her lifetime, but many mycologists now see her as a very important figure. I first had the idea to name a fungus after her a long time ago, so it’s a pleasure to finally be able to deliver on this and provide the appreciation from the scientific community that she didn’t get while she was alive.”
Beatrix Potter, widely known for her beloved children’s books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit, made significant, yet lesser-known contributions to science, but particularly mycology. During a time when women had limited rights and access to higher education, Potter, using her artistic skills, produced detailed drawings of fungi, which she meticulously collected and studied under microscope.
Her first-known fungal paintings are from 1887, and at least two paintings from this period survive. She was self-taught in the techniques of accurate botanical illustration and collaborated with Charles McIntosh, a respected mycologist, to further her studies.
Her meeting with McIntosh in 1892 sparked a lifelong love in Potter for fungi in general. Her passion for fungi was driven by both their aesthetic appeal and scientific intrigue. She created spore art and was fascinated by how mushrooms reproduced, often using her spore sprints to germinate her own mushrooms.
Potter’s scientific endeavors went beyond mere interest; she conducted her own experiments on mushroom spores and was particularly fascinated by lichens, which were not well-understood at the time. She developed theories about their reproduction and presented her findings in a paper titled “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae,” complemented by her detailed illustrations.
However, her work faced significant barriers due to the prevailing gender biases in the scientific community. The Linnaean Society, a leading botanical institution in London, dismissed her work without serious consideration because of her gender.
Despite these challenges, Potter’s fungi illustrations remain a valuable resource for their scientific accuracy and are still consulted by mycologists today. Her contributions to science, though initially overlooked, have gained recognition over time, highlighting her multifaceted talents beyond her literary achievements. She is well-remembered now as an environmentalist and artist who brought nature back into the English imagination. Her acts of living simply in nature are recognized and revered today.