The ancestral animal

The Cambrian Explosion of shell-bearing animals and the preceding, diverse and very odd Ediacaran fauna that left imprints and moulds in the Late Neoproterozoic both posed two puzzles for early palaeontologists. What organisms evolved so that unmistakable traces of animal life were able to leave fossils after about 600 Ma, and what pace did evolution take to present us with virtually all the animal phyla, including some not around nowadays, ‘fully separated’? Molecular genetic studies of living animals are beginning to throw up some answers (Holmes, R. 2009. The mother of us all. New Scientist, v. 202 (2 May Issue), p. 38-41). It is a complex and growing field, so Bob Holmes’ review of current ideas on the last common ancestor of the animals is welcome for non-specialists. It does look as though the radiation was long before the Ediacaran, but may well have been very rapid. The genetically closest single-celled organism to metazoan animals are the rare choanoflagellates; filter feeders with a collar-like structure and a tail. They bear some resemblance to the feeding cells of sponges, but sponges in their current form seem highly unlikely as the Ur-creature, totally lacking any organs and really just a coexistence of clone-like cells. Gene sequencing from 42 animal groups puts sponges at the bottom of a relatedness tree, yet at the bottom of two of the main branches. So the sponges do indeed seem to have it as our ultimate ancestors. Yet the flurry of ever-more detailed sequencing, for more and more groups using increasingly sophisticated statistical analysis has fired up controversy. Jellyfish-like ctenophores now have a look-in too, as do mysterious placozoans, according to one or other researcher. This field is throwing up an object lesson for hubristic scientists used to counting their chickens… No, the votes are never all in, and surprises always lie ahead for both the unwary and the patient. 

Luckily, Holmes closes by looking at a careful proposal for the ‘How’. Claus Nielson of the University of Copenhagen, a major ‘player’ in this field, has suggested how starting with a slab-like choanoflagellate, with all its function cells on the outside, might have evolved be curling to enclose a tube of inward facing cells; a precursor of a gut. One next step from there could be specialisation of some cells as nerves, then the development of a ‘mouth’ and ‘anus’ – the basis for the bilateral symmetry of all higher animals including ourselves. As for the ‘When’, there are sufficient leads from a molecular clock approach to settle on the oddest climatic events of the last 1.5 Ga of the Proterozoic, the near global glaciations or ‘Snowball Earth’ events that began around 750 Ma ago.

Photosynthesis from way back when: the hunt for RuBisCO

Charles Darwin had an abiding fascination with plants, though one that was essentially practical through observation and breeding. That is sufficient excuse in his bicentenary for reviews, but a good way to honour his legacy is again to push essays to the leading edge of present understanding (Leslie, M. 2009. On the origin of photosynthesis. Science, v. 323, p. 1286-1287). Being able to convert sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to the basis of their own life and that of the rest of the planet, plants and other photosynthesising organisms are the fundamental essence of the living world. Land plants are recent developments, emerging in the Silurian around 425 Ma ago with presumed terrestrial spores some 50 Ma earlier. Their forbears were almost certainly marine algae. Yet they are highly evolved, and it is not to separate precursors that palaeobotanists can look  for origins, but to the internal chloroplasts that look remarkable like cells in their own right with separate DNA and RNA. They perform the astonishing trick of breaking the extremely strong OH-H bonds that form the water molecule otherwise achieved either by extremely high temperatures or by electrolysis. The trick is for an organism to grab an electron thereby releasing the bond and both hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen links to carbon and oxygen from CO2, and the other oxygen is freed. Similar to a magician’s trick with smoke and mirrors, photosynthesis uses pigments. Colour in any object or material results from photons of one wavelength range in sunlight being absorbed so that those reflected make up the colour. The most familiar is chlorophyll which absorbs two wavelength ranges: the red and the blue regions to leave green to be reflected for us to see. It is actually a bit of quantum mechanics, as the absorbed photons carry the energy needed to stoke up that of electrons so that they can break free of the OH-H bond in water and split the molecule. The chain of organic chemistry which follows this trick is hugely complex, and it seems to have taken several forms reflected in specific genes in a growing array of photosynthesising bacteria of various genetic antiquities. There are green ones, blue ones, the reds, yellows and oranges.

Luckily the chemical remnants of photosynthesising bacteria are pretty robust, and also distinctive. The central one for most photosynthesising organisms is an enzyme that is complicated, called Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase, or RuBisCO for short. Euan Nisbet of Royal Holloway, University of London has been hunting RuBisCO for most of the latter part of his career as a Precambrian geologist. he and colleagues found relics of it in 2.7 Ga Archaean sediments from Zimbabwe and Canada (Nisbet, E.G. et al. 2007. The age of Rubisco: the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis. Geobiology, v. 5, p. 311-335) and claim there are signs far older. Needless to say.

A fluffy grazing dinosaur

The Cretaceous of NE China is becoming a favoured destination for palaeobiologists interested in well-preserved vertebrates, little dinosaurs, especially. An increasing number turned up by fossil hunters have skin relics covered in feathers, although they are rarely if at all equipped for flight, are. Recently, something even more bizarre was unearthed (Zheng, X.-T. et al. 2009. An Early Cretaceous heterodontosaurid dinosaur with filamentous integumentary structures. Nature, v. 458, p. 333-336). In plain-speak, Tianyulong confuciusi was fluffy. And as readers really ought to know, the heterodontosaurs were largely Jurassic herbivorous creatures, 70 Ma older than T. confuciusi; a good example of a ‘living fossil’ in its own time. They evolved to large Cretaceous herbivores, such as the famous duck-billed hadrosaurs, Triceratops and Stegosaurus, members of the Ornithischia as opposed to the more commonly carnivorous Saurischia. It was the latter that were widely believed to have been evolutionary branch from which birds sprang. There is a complex argument surrounding T. Confucius, based on which is a proposal that the ancestral dinosaurs were themselves fluffy. First, thoughts of brightly coloured ‘monsters’ and now the possibility that some may even have looked cuddly.

See also: Witmer, L.M. 2009. Fuzzy origins for feathers. Nature, v. 458, p. 293-295.

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