Microbe genes help scientists reconstruct animal origins

MADISON, Wis., Dec. 17 - Without the help of fossils or any other record from the distant past, scientists have identified what they believe represents a common ancestor of all animals on Earth, a microscopic organism with key genetic traits that, until now, have been found only in true animals.

Writing in the Dec. 18 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of scientists from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison reports the discovery of a key cell communication gene in modern, single-celled microbes known as choanoflagellates.

Long suspected to be close relatives of animals, choanoflagellates have a lineage that dates to more than 600 million years ago, the time when animals - multicellular organisms with distinct body plans and systems of organs -are believed to have evolved in the ancient stew of microscopic protozoan life

Ancient microbes eventually gave rise not only to animals, but also plants, fungi, bacteria, and other living things, each going their separate ways to make up the tree of life as we know it today. The evolution of multicellular animals from a unicellular protozoan ancestor has long been recognized as a pivotal transition in the history of life.

"The question is, who were the ancestors of animals and what genetic tools did they pass down to the original animals," says Sean B. Carroll, a UW-Madison professor of genetics and the senior author of the PNAS study. "This is a difficult question to answer because the events are completely invisible in the fossil record."

Choanoflagellates represent an order of transparent, single-celled microbes that propel themselves with whiplike appendages. They exist in many forms today and, like animals, their lineage stretches back hundreds of millions of years ago to the mix of microscopic life that first evolved on Earth.

"Choanoflagellates thrive today and are the closest non-animal organisms to animals.

Contact: Sean B. Carroll
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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