Oldest animal fossils may have been bacteria

December 20, 2006

The oldest-known animal eggs and embryos, whose first pictures made the cover of Nature in 1998, were so small they looked like bugs - which, it now appears, they may have been.

This week, a study in the same prestigious journal presents evidence for reinterpreting the 600 million-year-old fossils from the Precambrian era as giant bacteria.

The discovery "complicates our understanding of microfossils thought to be the oldest animals," said lead author Jake Bailey, a graduate student in earth sciences at the University of Southern California.

Bailey made his discovery by combining two separate findings about Thiomargarita, the world's largest known living bacterium.

In 2005, Thiomargarita discoverer Heide Schulz, from the University of Hannover in Germany, showed that the bacterium promotes deposition of a mineral known as phosphorite.

The fossils identified as eggs and embryos in 1998 came from southern China's Doushantuo Formation, which is rich in phosphorite.

The source for the rare mineral was unknown. Bailey wondered if an ancient relative of Thiomargarita might have been involved.

"The idea is that these bacteria were causing these phosphorite deposits to form," Bailey said.

Also in 2005, University of Georgia marine biologists Samantha Joye and Karen Kalanetra, who are co-authors on Bailey's study, found that Thiomargarita can multiply by reductive cell division, a process rare among bacteria but typical of animal embryos.

Bailey knew that the fossils had been identified as embryos in part because they showed evidence of reductive cell division. Then he thought again about the phosphorite deposits.

"When I put those two pieces together, I said ... perhaps they're not animal embryos at all."

Bailey and his co-authors compared the size and geometrical properties of the Doshuanto fossils and modern Thiomargarita bacteria - they were nearly identical.

Coupled with the presence of phosphorite, the result pointed strongly to ancient Thiomargarita activity.

"I was shocked that there was this other option out there," Bailey said.

The finding also solved a longstanding puzzle. Proponents of the animal theory had struggled to explain how eggs and embryos could be preserved, as neither fossilizes easily.

These bacteria, on the other hand, make better fossil candidates. And by depositing phosphorite, Thiomargarita even supplies its own rock matrix, or fossil bed.

The Nature study's authors, which include Bailey's adviser Frank Corsetti and USC biology graduate student Beverly Flood, were careful not to rule out the existence of animal fossils from the same geological era. The Doushantuo Formation contains the fossils of many species, some of which have been identified as animals.

While calling the evidence for animal life in the Doushantuo "controversial," Bailey noted that other fossils in the formation "bear little resemblance to Thiomargarita.

"Our paper offers an alternative interpretation of the most abundant microfossils in the Doushantuo Formation," he added. "The structures that we discuss were the first Doushantuo fossils to be interpreted as embryos, and they've been widely accepted as such."

Regardless of the evidence for animal life in the Doushantuo, Bailey's study elevates Thiomargarita to the role of Great Preserver, since without its mineral contribution the other organisms might never have fossilized.
-end-
The study appears in the Dec. 20 issue of Nature. Funding for the group's research came from the National Science Foundation, NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

University of Southern California

Related Bacteria Articles from Brightsurf:

Siblings can also differ from one another in bacteria
A research team from the University of Tübingen and the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF) is investigating how pathogens influence the immune response of their host with genetic variation.

How bacteria fertilize soya
Soya and clover have their very own fertiliser factories in their roots, where bacteria manufacture ammonium, which is crucial for plant growth.

Bacteria might help other bacteria to tolerate antibiotics better
A new paper by the Dynamical Systems Biology lab at UPF shows that the response by bacteria to antibiotics may depend on other species of bacteria they live with, in such a way that some bacteria may make others more tolerant to antibiotics.

Two-faced bacteria
The gut microbiome, which is a collection of numerous beneficial bacteria species, is key to our overall well-being and good health.

Microcensus in bacteria
Bacillus subtilis can determine proportions of different groups within a mixed population.

Right beneath the skin we all have the same bacteria
In the dermis skin layer, the same bacteria are found across age and gender.

Bacteria must be 'stressed out' to divide
Bacterial cell division is controlled by both enzymatic activity and mechanical forces, which work together to control its timing and location, a new study from EPFL finds.

How bees live with bacteria
More than 90 percent of all bee species are not organized in colonies, but fight their way through life alone.

The bacteria building your baby
Australian researchers have laid to rest a longstanding controversy: is the womb sterile?

Hopping bacteria
Scientists have long known that key models of bacterial movement in real-world conditions are flawed.

Read More: Bacteria News and Bacteria Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.