The phylum Ascomycota is by far the largest group in the fungal kingdom. Ecologically important mutualistic associations such as mycorrhizae and lichens have evolved in this group, which are regarded as key innovations that supported the evolution of land plants. Only a few attempts have been made to date the origin of Ascomycota lineages by using molecular clock methods, which is primarily due to the lack of satisfactory fossil calibration data. For this reason we have evaluated all of the oldest available ascomycete fossils from amber (Albian to Miocene) and chert (Devonian and Maastrichtian). The fossils represent five major ascomycete classes (Coniocybomycetes, Dothideomycetes, Eurotiomycetes, Laboulbeniomycetes, and Lecanoromycetes). We have assembled a multi-gene data set (18SrDNA, 28SrDNA, RPB1 and RPB2) from a total of 145 taxa representing most groups of the Ascomycota and utilized fossil calibration points solely from within the ascomycetes to estimate divergence times of Ascomycota lineages with a Bayesian approach. Our results suggest an initial diversification of the Pezizomycotina in the Ordovician, followed by repeated splits of lineages throughout the Phanerozoic, and indicate that this continuous diversification was unaffected by mass extinctions. We suggest that the ecological diversity within each lineage ensured that at least some taxa of each group were able to survive global crises and rapidly recovered.
Keywords: Amber; Ascomycota; BEAST; Divergence times estimates; Fossil constraints; Fungi.
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