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Flatworms Are Oldest Living Ancestors To Those Of Us With Right And Left Sides, Reported In The 19 March Issue Of Science

e from this pre-Cambrian time. (Flatworms, several of which are parasites, are only distantly related to, and much simpler than, the familiar earthworms.)

"It may well be that the origin of bilateral organisms occurred a bit earlier on, [before the Cambrian explosion,] from simple animals whose fossils have not been recovered," said Bagu. "This may mean that we need to look more carefully at pre-Cambrian rocks or sediments to search for primitive bilateral animals."

Bagu and his colleagues, Iaki Ruiz-Trillo and Marta Riutort of the University of Barcelona and D. Timothy J. Littlewood and Elisabeth A. Herniou of the Natural History Museum in London, began their study with the intention of investigating a troublesome subgroup of flatworms that didn't fit neatly into its prescribed classification. The Acoela, as this subgroup is known, are unlike other flatworms for a number of reasons, particularly because they are unusually primitive. For example, other flatworms have digestive tracts of some sort, but the Acoela lack them altogether.

To determine whether the Acoela might not be better classified separately from the other flatworms, Bagu and his colleagues took a molecular approach. Molecular studies such as this investigate the evolutionary relationships among taxonomic groups, based on the assumption that mutations in a gene occur at a constant rate. Once researchers have determined the sequence of a particular gene, they can compare the gene in a variety of organisms. If the sequences are significantly different, that implies that the organisms are more distantly related. In other words, more time has passed since they diverged from their common ancestor.

The research team sequenced the Acoela's "18S rDNA" gene, which had already been sequenced in many other animals, including other types of flatworms. The scientists then compared this sequence in a variety of animals, using a software
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Contact: Gabriel Paal
gpaal@aaas.org
202-326-6421
American Association for the Advancement of Science
19-Mar-1999


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