Science/AAAS

Video: Tomato ancestor evolved 50 million years ago near Antarctica

The tomato on your sandwich traces its history to a plant that evolved near Antarctica more than 50 million years ago, according to a study published today in Science. Researchers found two fossils compressed into 52.2-million-year-old Patagonian stone, which showcased the flattened silhouettes of ancient lantern fruit. The remains resemble modern-day members of the Solanaceae or nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, potatoes, bell peppers, eggplants, and tobacco. The fossils looked like two unique nightshade relatives in particular: ground cherries and tomatillos (the stuff salsa verde is made of), both of which are veiled in a papery husk. Veins of the husk are visibly detailed on the fossils, and scientists were even able to identify compacted remnants of the berry, which turned to coal during the fossilization process. At the time the plant—now christened Physalis infinemundi—thrived, South America would have been close to Antarctica and Australia during the ancient supercontinent Gondwana’s final stages of separation. Today, the site where the fossils were found, Laguna del Hunco in Argentina, is dry and desolate, but in the Eocene epoch (56 million to 33.9 million years ago), the area was near the shore of a caldera lake and had a much more tropical climate. Because of the lakeside locale, researchers suspect that the inflated husk could have served as a flotation device.