'Animal embryo' fossils are actually microbes (Update)

December 22, 2011 by Tom Marshall
Fossils shed light on evolutionary origin of animals from single-cell ancestors
570 million year old multicellular spore body undergoing vegetative nuclear and cell division (foreground) based on synchrotron x-ray tomographic microscopy of fossils recovered from rocks in South China. The background shows a cut surface through the rock - every grain (about 1 mm diameter) is an exceptionally preserved gooey ball of dividing cells turned to stone.

Tiny fossils that scientists have thought for decades were the embryos of the earliest animals ever found have turned out to be the remains of much simpler microbial organisms.

In a Science paper that's likely to dismay many palaeontologists, an international team of researchers describe how they used from a specialised particle accelerator to model the internal structure of hundreds of the 580-million-year-old in three dimensions.

The results left little doubt that the fossils are from single-celled of an evolutionary grade that came before complex, multi-cellular animals. The fossils occur as clumps of cells, representing different stages in a process of progressive division, just like the early stages of embryonic development seen in animals like humans.

But unlike animal embryos, where the cells organise themselves into tissues and organs, the X-ray examination revealed the organism simply carried on dividing to produce hundreds of thousands of spores that were eventually released to be distributed by ocean currents.

'These deposits were supposed to be the earliest unequivocal evidence of complex animal life, 50 million years before the next oldest animal fossils,' says Professor Philip Donoghue of the University of Bristol, one of the paper's authors. 'If that had been true, they would have had the potential to shed a huge amount of light on early animal evolution.'

Sadly, it isn't. 'We were very surprised by our results,' he adds. 'We've been convinced for so long that these fossils represented the embryos of the earliest animals - much of what has been written about the fossils for the last ten years is flat wrong. Our colleagues are not going to like the result.'

Video showing 570 million year old multicellular spore body fossilised while undergoing vegetative nuclear and cell division. The computer model is based on on synchrotron x-ray tomographic microscopy of these tiny fossils recovered from rocks in South China. Courtesy of Stefan Bengtson, Swedish Museum of Natural History.

So if they're not embryos, what are they? Donoghue says the likeliest explanation is that the fossilised organisms belonged to the living group Mesomycetozoa, also known as 'drips'. These are close unicellular relatives of true animals, and mostly live as parasites on animals such as salmon and shellfish. The drips show a tendency towards multicellularity, with amoeba-like mother dividing repeatedly to produce clusters of tiny of amoebas, just like the fossils.

Normally such organisms don't fossilise, having no hard parts like bones or shells, so we have very limited records of them. These specimens were preserved only because they were buried in phosphate-rich sediments and sea water that gradually turned their internal structure to stone. If the embryo theory had been true, the fossils would be a goldmine of information about how the of very early animals developed. But these results seem to eliminate that possibility.

The tiny, spherical, very numerous fossils were found in the Duoshantuo Formation in southern China in the late 1980s. Early analysis tentatively identified them as algae, but this idea was quickly abandoned in favour of the animal embryo hypothesis. An alternative idea was proposed in 2007 that these were fossilised giant bacteria that lived on sulphur.

Another paper published recently in Proceedings of the Royal Society B by Donoghue and his colleagues demolished the bacteria interpretation, showing that the Doushantuo microfossils have an internal structure that couldn't possibly be that of giant sulphur-reducing bacteria.

And now the Science paper has done the same for the more popular animal embryo hypothesis. If the fossils do turn out to be the remains of a member of the drip family, they will provide us with the first rock-solid evidence for the emergence of multicellularity early in the evolution of the lineage in which animals eventually arose.

'We used a particle accelerator called a synchrotron as our X-ray source,' says co-author Dr John Cunningham of Bristol. It allowed us to make a perfect computer model of the fossil that we could cut up in any way we wanted, but without damaging the fossil in any way. We would never have been able to study the fossils otherwise!' The team used the Swiss Light Source synchrotron in Zurich.

Explore further: Fossil that fills missing evolutionary link named after University of Chicago professors

More information: Huldtgren, T., Cunningham, J. A., Yin, C., Stampanoni, M., Marone, F., Donoghue, P. C. J. and Bengtson, S. 2011. 'Fossilized nuclei and germination structures identify Ediacaran "animal embryos" as encysting protists' in Science 334.

Related Stories

New clues from brain structures of mantis shrimp

September 28, 2017

Taking a close look at the neural systems of mantis shrimp, top arthropod predators of the coral reef, researchers led by Nick Strausfeld at the University of Arizona and Gabriella Wolff, now at the University of Washington, ...

Recommended for you

How to cut your lawn for grasshoppers

November 22, 2017

Picture a grasshopper landing randomly on a lawn of fixed area. If it then jumps a certain distance in a random direction, what shape should the lawn be to maximise the chance that the grasshopper stays on the lawn after ...

Plague likely a Stone Age arrival to central Europe

November 22, 2017

A team of researchers led by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History has sequenced the first six European genomes of the plague-causing bacterium Yersinia pestis dating from the Late Neolithic ...

Ancient barley took high road to China

November 21, 2017

First domesticated 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, wheat and barley took vastly different routes to China, with barley switching from a winter to both a winter and summer crop during a thousand-year ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 22, 2011
Where's Kevin with his rants about creationism? Surely he did not miss this article...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.