Scientists probe ancient evolution

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Prehistoric plants grown in state-of-the-art growth chambers recreating environmental conditions from more than 400 million years ago have given Sheffield University scientists an insight into early evolution.

Groundbreaking research is providing vital knowledge of how plants colonised the land before roots evolved.

It is also examining how fungi and early plants played a founding role in the evolution of Earth’s eco-systems.

The research highlights how plants gain growth-promoting soil phosphorus from the fungi in exchange for sugars fixed by the plant through photosynthesis.

Dr Katie Field, lead author, said: “Our research shows for the first time how Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems were initiated in partnership with soil dwelling fungi nearly half a billion years ago.”

The scientists used liverworts as representatives of the earliest group of plants to leave the water. The plants have no roots or leaves, do not produce flowers or seeds, and are very similar to fossilised remains of the very first land plants.