Fly Agaric Fungus

Fly agaric, Amanita muscaria, in woodland leaf litter. This fungus often forms mutualistic symbiosis with species of birch and pine.

Principal Investigator

Dr Christine Strullu-Derrien

Project summary

  • Focus: Investigating the origin and evolution of fungal-plant relationships

We are using fossils to investigate the origin and evolution of relationships between plants and microorganisms during the early development of life on land.

Our research objectives are to:

  • complete a systematic survey of microscopic eukaryotes based on the Museum's fossil slide collections
  • describe new microfossils using state-of-the-art imaging techniques
  • determine their affinities using modern phylogenetic methods

Fungal colonisation in the fossil plant Asteroxylon mackiei. Transverse section of an aerial axis.


Fungi and fungi-like eukaryotes are ancient groups thought to be vital in the early development of terrestrial ecosystems. Molecular phylogenetic studies of living species reveal their evolutionary history, but scientists also use fossils to calibrate these relationships.

Fossils provide the only direct evidence of early fungi and fungi-like microorganisms interacting with plants. Fossils are therefore crucial in defining evolutionary relationships of modern species, as they allow us to determine the beginnings of lineages.

Our research

We are collecting new data on fossil fungi and fungus-like microorganisms using:

  • microscopy
  • state-of-the-art imaging methods
  • phylogenetic characters for the newly described microorganisms, to develop a phylogenetic framework that relates to modern forms.

This project is improving our understanding of the origin and evolution of key microorganism and plant associations.


  • Fungi: Fungi are heterotrophic eukaryotes. They are one of the least explored biodiversity resources and their symbiotic relations are crucial to the survival of plants.
  • Fungi-like microorganisms: The Oomycetes (fungi-like microorganisms) are some of the most important plant pathogens, including Potato Blight Phytophthora infestans and Ash dieback Chalara fraxinea. Although they superficially resemble fungi in mycelial growth and mode of nutrition, they show distinct characteristics. Recent research on fossils in the Museum's collection has provided the earliest evidence for parasitism in this group.

Find out more about the earliest evidence for parasitism in Oomycetes.

Fossil fungal spore

407 million-year-old fungal spores in the Rhynie chert, Scotland



We are undertaking the Museum's first systematic study of microscopic symbionts preserved among plant tissues, based on observations of the thin section collection.

The soft tissues of fossil plants are often preserved in minerals, such as pyrite, calcite and silica. Thin sections reveal the internal structure of these specimens and contain valuable information about microscopic symbionts preserved inside.

The Museum has a large and comprehensive collection of fossil plants and a unique collection of thin sections containing over 15,000 objects. 

Find out more about the palaeobotany collections.

We are sampling plant taxonomic groups for all key organ systems - roots, stems, trunks, leaves and reproductive organs. 

Data is sourced from two important time slices:

  • The Early Devonian Rhynie Chert, ca 410 million years old. This is the oldest terrestrial site of exceptional preservation. Plants preserved in these rocks are all small and herbaceous.
  • The Late Carboniferous Coal Measures of the UK, ca 310 million years old. Terrestrial ecosystems were well established in forested wetlands during this period.

Imaging processes

We are using three different light microscopy imaging processes to describe fungal structures, identify new forms and characterise their relationships with plants. 


Newly-described species are classified based on their evolutionary development. This phylogenetic approach allows us to place organisms into a framework that can be compared to modern forms.  

Phylogenetic relationships among the main orders within the Oomycetes, based on molecular sequence data (modified after Beakes and Sekimoto, 2009)
Strullu-Derrien et al. 2011.

Museum staff

Other Collaborators


Funded by

Origins, evolution and futures

We study the Earth's origins and environment, and the evolution of life.

Invertebrate and plant palaeobiology research

We are investigating the origins and evolution of these diverse fossil groups.

Palaeontology collections

The geographic, stratigraphic and historical coverage of fossils in the collection make it globally important.