If you think that my online ramblings have been light on recently, it is possibly because I have been busy with other projects. One such project has been writing the “Science Story for the month” for the SDFSA newsletter. It occurred to me whilst laying awake in bed one night that I could repeat these ‘stories’ on our website, so here goes. This first repeat story comes from the SDFSA’s March 2020 newsletter.

1b year-old green plant fossils found in northern China

It was recently reported that “Scientists have spotted in rocks from northern China what may be the oldest fossils of a green plant ever found, tiny seaweed that carpeted areas of the seafloor roughly a billion years ago and were part of a primordial revolution among life on Earth. Researchers said the plant, called Proterocladus antiquus, was about the size of a rice grain and boasted numerous thin branches. Proterocladus, a form of green algae, was one of the largest organisms of its time, and engaged in photosynthesis, transforming energy from sunlight into chemical energy and producing oxygen.”

According to the web page found at https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/02/25/asia-pacific/science-health-asia-pacific/billion-year-old-chinese-seaweed-oldest-green-plant-fossil , Proterocladus antiquus (thrived) “in shallow water while attached to the seafloor with a root-like structure” and (shared) “the seas mainly with bacteria and other microbes”.

According to the web page found at https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/feb/24/tiny-chinese-seaweed-is-oldest-green-plant-fossil-ever-found , “Proterocladus antiquus is a close relative of the ancestor of all green plants alive today,” said Qing Tang, a Virginia Tech post-doctoral researcher in paleobiology who detected the fossils in rock dug up in Liaoning province near the city of Dalian and lead author of the study published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. Earth’s biosphere depends heavily on plants for food and oxygen. The first land plants, thought to be descendants of green seaweeds, appeared about 450m years ago.

“There was an evolutionary shift on Earth perhaps 2bn years ago from simple bacteria-like cells to the first members of a group called eukaryotes that spans fungi, plants and animals. The first plants were single-celled organisms. The transition to multicellular plants such as Proterocladus was a pivotal development that paved the way for the riot of plants that have inhabited the world, from ferns to sequoias to the Venus flytrap.

Proterocladus is 200m years older than the previous earliest-known green seaweed. One of its modern relatives is a type of edible seaweed called sea lettuce. Proterocladus represents the oldest unambiguous green plant fossil. Fossils of possible older single-celled green plants are still a matter of debate.

“Plants were not the first to practice photosynthesis. They had an ancestor that apparently acquired the photosynthesis cellular apparatus from a type of bacterium called cyanobacterium.  This ancestor of all green plants gave rise to two major branches, one of them includes some aquatic plants and all land plants while the other – the group to which Proterocladus belongs – is made up exclusively of aquatic plants.

“Shuhai Xiao, a Virginia Tech paleobiologist and study co-author, said: “Proterocladus antiquus is the sister of the evolutionary great, great grandmother of all green plants alive today.”


By Steve Reynolds

Steve Reynolds is the current President of MLSSA and is a long-standing member of the Society. Steve is a keen diver, underwater explorer, photographer and is chief author of the Society's extensive back catalogue of newsletters and journals.

One thought on “1b year-old green plant fossils found in northern China (Science Story for SDFSA March 2020 newsletter)”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *