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World's oldest plant-like fossils push back evolutionary timeline 400 million years

An X-ray tomographic image of the world’s oldest fossil of red algae.
Source: Stefan Bengtson
An X-ray tomographic image of the world’s oldest fossil of red algae.

A cluster of fossilized algae discovered in India is believed to be 1.6 billion years old, suggesting advanced multicellular life evolved on Earth hundreds of millions of years earlier than previously thought.

Researchers from the Swedish Museum of Natural History published their findings Tuesday in the open-access journal PLOS Biology.

The findings were based on field work in 2006 and 2011 in Chitrakoot, a heavily forested region in central India famous for being an important location in the epic poem the Ramayana.

The fossils were found in a layer of sedimentary rock that dates back 1.6 billion years.

"You cannot be 100 percent sure about material this ancient, as there is no DNA remaining, but the characters agree quite well with the morphology and structure of red algae," said study lead author Stefan Bengtson, a professor emeritus of paleozoology at the Swedish Museum of Natural History.

Prior to this discovery, the oldest known plant-like fossils were 1.2 billion years old. This new revelation could require scientists to once again revise the evolutionary timeline.

"The 'time of visible life' seems to have begun much earlier than we thought," Bengtson said.

There are older fossilized life forms — up to 4 billion years old — but these are possibly the oldest examples of multicellular eukaryotes life forms that have a nucleus in each cell. These are more complex organisms than those found in the fossils that have come before them.