A curious case of convergent evolution?

ResearchBlogging.orgThe title of this post is followed by a question mark. That is because what follows is not a statement of fact but a puzzle that I have been mulling over in my head since a photograph was published early last year. I do fervently hope the authors of the paper will forgive me for not citing the picture directly, the full citation can be found at the end of this post. I do this only because I want to lead off with a mystery.


Can you guess the phylum?

Look at this picture. What do you see? Without scales, context, or attribution, many of my fried friends have responded that it is some type of coral (cnidaria), maybe a tunicate (chordata), but the vast majority have interpreted this image as that of some form of sponge (porifera). Indeed, this object does bear a remarkable similarity to a leuconoid sponge.


Leuconoid Sponge

And that is where evolutionary questions get interesting.

This organism is not a sponge. Despite the fact that all guesses as to its identity fall within the animal kingdom, this organism is not an animal at all. It is a member of the most basal fungal lineage, Chytridiomycota, the Chytrids.


This critter took its sweet time finding land.

Fungi were among the first eukaryotes to leave the warm embrace of the sea and venture onto land, and they have become supremely adapted to it. They paved the way for the emergence of terrestrial plants, and the deep symbioses between plants and fungi were already well formed long before animals surrendered their gills. The classic image of a fish emerging from the sea onto a barren mudflat, its fins already the rudiments of legs, ignores the fact that life was already flourishing on land. Animals were fashionably late on the scene.

Despite common misconceptions, fungi are not plants. They form their own monophyletic kingdom, the kingdom Fungi. However, fungi and plants are still more often than not linked together in primary school and college biology courses. Many universities still lump mycology in with the Botany department. In a lot of ways this is a rational choice, because the interactions between fungi and plants are one of, if not the, most important driving force in ecology.



But a phylogeneticist will tell you that Mycology would better be served taught alongside Zoology. Fungi and Animalia form a single clade called Opisthokonta, meaning “tail-behind” for the single flagella that their earliest ancestors possessed. Fungi and Animals share a motile, flagellated common ancestor. A common ancestor that looks surprisingly like a choanoflagellate. This shared, protistan ancestor plied the aqueous world more than 460 million years ago. Should it then be a shock that the most basal fungi and the most basal animals are defined by flagellated cells (choancytes in animals, chytrids in fungi)?

Sponges use their choanocytes to move water through their bodies. The beating flagella are very much the sponge’s hearts. Along with moving water, each choanocyte has a collar around its flagella which captures food particles. These food particles are then collected by amoeboid cells and digested to power the sponge. Elegant, beautiful, and simple, this is likely how the first multicellular animal collected its food.

Chytrids, on the other hand, use their flagella for motility. Both the gametes and the spores of chytrids possess flagella, and as such, most chytrids survive in aqueous habitats. For an in depth look and some wonderful chytrid pictures, visit Chytrid Fungi Online.

This particular group of chytrids, members of a recently created order  – Rhizophydiales – are found in marshes along a lake in Patagonia. The area it was recovered from is described as oligotrophic . Of course, the deep sea was once called oligotrophic as well, and I’m of the opinion that if you can’t find life everywhere on this planet, you’re not looking hard enough. Regardless, Patagonian lakes could certainly be considered extreme environments, and the presence of fungi there is yet another reason why I think we’ll find them in the deep sea as well.

There is currently no evidence to suggest that this superficial appearance of the above chytrid and leuconoid sponges is anything more than coincidental. The first image, which appeared on the front cover of Mycologia, struck me when I saw it because of how similar the features were.  If this is truly a case of convergent evolution, it could be tested. The beauty of evolutionary theory is that it can be tested. We can look at this superficial resemblance between the most basal fungal lineage and the most basal animal lineage and hypothesize that perhaps these two kingdoms share a border. Perhaps there is a common ancestor to both groups that resembles this most basic form of each.

As it turns out, there is.

Happy birthday Charles!

~Southern Fried Scientist

Letcher PM, Powell MJ, Viusent MC (2008). Rediscovery of an unusual chytridiaceous fungus new to the order Rhizophydiales Mycologia, 100 (2), 325-334


  1. irradiatus · February 15, 2009

    Very edifying and fascinating post!

    I freely admit that before some of your previous posts I had never even heard of chytrids. I’m a little more embarrassed to admit that I had no idea that fungi were flagellated.

    What can I say? I know jack about mycology.

    This makes me want to learn more.

  2. Rick MacPherson · February 15, 2009

    i love fungi… a little butter, garlic, white wine, and then atop pasta it’s existential…

    i remember a graduate seminar years ago when a prof once underscored the close evolutionary affinity of fungi and animals by going through a rogues gallery of fungal afflictions that are only possible because of a lot of shared molecular biology… from athletes foot, to jock itch, to ring worm, to toe-nail rot, to… well, i’ll stop there…

    fungi love us too…

  3. Southern Fried Scientist · February 15, 2009

    of course, you wouldn’t have the butter without anaerobic chytrids in cattle rumens, nor garlic and wheat without ectomycorrhizae, and of course, the wine, well, alcohol is the mycologists’ ace in the hole. Or penicillin if you’re talking to someone boring…

  4. DD · February 15, 2009

    great post!

  5. Laura · February 15, 2009

    Fascinating post. I never knew how much I didn’t know about fungi. (I’m cultivating some right now, actually… shiitake mushrooms!)

  6. AK · March 6, 2009

    I have a personal theory (speculation) that the common ancestor was actually a multi-nucleate amoeboid, which isn’t quite the same as “single-celled”. A wide-scale conversion to a completely mono-nucleate lifestyle (in many lineages) could have been driven by a massive radiation of intra-cellular parasites, perhaps shortly before the Cambrian.

    In this case, the common ancestor of the opisthokonts might have been a multi-nucleate amoeboid with many choanoflagelli, which it used both for capturing food particles and stirring the water for oxygen retrieval, perhaps also inserting fungus-like extensions into an underlying anoxic bacterial mat, where its access to surface oxygen would give it a tremendous metabolic advantage over anoxic residents.

  7. notmyrealm · April 16, 2009

    In contrast to my blogger name, I thought I WAS in my realm when I saw the picture…I said to myself, “THERE WAS A REASON FOR MY ASSIGNMENT TO RESEARCH THE PHYLUM PORIFERA! AND HERE IT IS!” …sadly, after reading the entire post, I am only back at square one…I am still “not[in]myrealm.”
    At the risk of asking a “dumb” question, how can a person visually spot the differences between the two–porifera and chytrids? That is, can one look at the two and tell the difference only by physical features?

    • Southern Fried Scientist · April 19, 2009

      The most obvious difference is size, chytrids are microscopic, but if you want to get more technical, chytrid cell walls will be made of chitin, while sponges are made of silica, spongin, or cellulose.

  8. Coco · April 20, 2009

    Wow! I dont know much about fungi, but this post was interesting. I would normally classify fungi as a plant, which I now know isnt right. Thanks!

  9. AngelGEEK · April 21, 2009

    Although i didn’t understand a lot of what is on this post, i found it very interesting. I guess fungi can look like a leuconoid sponge? I can’t believe that fungi aren’t classified as plants, do most of our professors know this?

    • WhySharksMatter · April 21, 2009

      All of your biology professors know that fungus and plants are different kingdoms, just like plants and animals are different kingdoms.

  10. John Henry · June 10, 2009

    Usually, I only lurk around blogs, but this post made me have to say something. Great job bro! :mrgreen:

  11. DD · November 26, 2009

    Nature is so complex! But I’m leaning toward the possibility that flagellates were selected for due to their turbulence (O2 & detritus mixing), and that on dry land, when green plants became established, wings were selected similarly due to their turbulence (CO2 mixing) enabling photosynthesisers to build carbohydrate tissues via air, rather than depend on roots for carbon uptake which would be susceptible to carbonic acid damage. There’s not much wind in a rainforest, but lots of insects, birds and bats. The animals which decompose (“burn”) vegetation are completely dependent on microbials for digestion.

  12. Lauren C. · November 30, 2009

    This is a very interesting article with great pictures! Thanks for the information!!

Comments are closed.