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Logotyp för Naturhistoriska riksmuseet
Logotyp för Naturhistoriska riksmuseet

A fossilized microbial consortium consisting of fungi (the long filaments), iron-oxidizing bacteria (the cauliflower-like structure) and archaea (the small cell-like structures between the fungal hyphae). 3D reconstruction: Stefan Bengtson

The deep history of life

How old is the world's oldest fungi and where has it been found? Answer: the world's oldest fungi is almost two and a half billion years old and was found by our research team in an ancient seabed from what is today South Africa. It does not look like how we are used to see fungi, but consists of microscopic threads - hyphae - that have grown in small cavities deep in the rock under the sea. We study the fungus and other microorganisms that lived in the seabed a long time ago in this project.

Forskningsområden: Paleontologi

Forskningsämnen: Djupbiosfären, Evolution, Flercellighet, Fossil, Svampar, Tidigt liv

Project overview

Project period: 2023- 2027

Participating departments from the museum: Palaeobiology

The deep biosphere makes up the world's most extensive microbial habitat. However, our knowledge of this biota is still limited due to difficulties with sampling at great depths. Paradoxically, the fossil record of the deep biosphere has been more or less ignored in palaeobiology.

Project description

We have begun the work of establishing a fossil archive of these unexplored environments. Among other things, we will develop the use of fungal lipids as specific biomarkers for fungal taxa to more precisely determine the taxonomic affiliation in fossil material. We have access to an extensive suite of samples from ocean floors and ophiolites spanning from today to 3.77 billion years ago. This project will result in significantly increased knowledge about the diversity, ecology and evolution of life in deep ocean floors and in deep time, as well as revise our understanding of the early evolution of eukaryotes. The ambition is to, in the long term, establish the fossil archive in crystalline bedrock as equal to the traditional fossil archive in sedimentary bedrock.

Financial support

Selected publications

  • Schmid-Beurmann, H.A., Wolf-Achim, K., Bach, W., Ivarsson, M., Böttcher, M.E., Peckmann, J. (2023) Dispersal of endolithic microorganisms in vesicular volcanic rock: Distribution, settlement, and pathways revealed by 3D X-ray microscopy. Terra Nova, External link.
  • Qu, Y., Yin, Z., Kustatscher, E., Nützel, Peckmann, J., Vajda, V., Ivarsson, M. (2022) Traces of ancient life in oceanic basalt preserved as iron-mineralized ultrastructures: Implications for detecting extraterrestrial biosignatures. Astrobiology 23:7, 769-785. External link.
  • Ivarsson, M., Drake, H., Neubeck, A., Sallstedt, T., Bengtson, S., Roberts, N.M.W, Rasmussen, B. (2020) The fossil record of igneous rock. Earth Science Reviews, 210, 103342. External link.
  • Ivarsson, M., Drake, H., Bengtson, S., Rasmussen, S. (2020) A cryptic alternative for the evolution of hyphae. Bioessays, 42, External link.
  • McMahon, S., Ivarsson, M. (2019) A new frontier for palaeobiology: Earth's vast deep biosphere. Bioessays, 41, DOI: 10.1002/bies.201900052.
  • Onstott, T.C., Ehlmann, B.L., Sapers, H., Coleman, M., Ivarsson, M., Marlow, J.J., Neubeck, A., Niles, P. (2019) Paleo-rock-hosted life on Earth and the search on Mars: a review and strategy for exploration. Astrobiology, 19, DOI: 10.1089/ast.2018.1960.
  • Drake, H., Ivarsson, M. (2018). The role of anaerobic fungi in fundamental biogeochemical cycles in the deep biosphere. Fungal Biology Reviews, 32, 20-25.
  • Bengtson, S., Rasmussen, B., Ivarsson, M., Muhling, J., Broman, C., Marone, F., Stampanoni, M., Bekker, A. (2017) Fungus-like mycelial fossils in 2.4 billion-year-old vesicular basalt. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 1: 0141.
  • Ivarsson, M., Bengtson, S., Neubeck, A. (2016) The igneous oceanic crust – Earth’s largest fungal habitat? Fungal Ecology 20, 249-255.
  • Ivarsson, M., Bengtson, S., Skogby, H., Lazor, P., Broman, C., Belivanova, V., Marone, F., (2015) A fungal-prokaryotic consortium at the basalt-zeolite interface in subseafloor igneous crust. PLOS ONE, 10(10):e014016. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0140106.
  • Bengtson, S., Ivarsson, M., Astolfo, A., Belivanova, V., Broman, C., Marone, F., Stampanoni, M. (2014) Deep-biosphere consortium of fungi and prokaryotes in Eocene sub-seafloor basalts. Geobiology 12, 489-496.
  • Ivarsson, M., Bengtson, S., Belivanova, V., Stampanoni, M., Marone, F., and Tehler, A. (2012) Fossilized fungi in subseafloor Eocene basalts. Geology, 40, 163-166.

Project members

Therese Sallstedt | Research assistant

Project leader

Magnus Ivarsson




Project member

Stefan Bengtson

Professor Emeritus



Resarch Areas: Paleontology

Research Subjects: Evolution, Fossils, Fungi, Early life, Multicellularity, Deep Biosphere