29 April 2021

Billion-year-old fossil reveals missing link in the evolution of animals

A billion year old fossil, which provides a new link in the evolution of animals, has been discovered in the Scottish Highlands.

Loch Torridon
Loch Torridon

  • Scientists have discovered the fossil of an organism with two distinct cell types,  thought to be the oldest of its kind ever recorded
  • The fossil reveals a new insight into the transition of single celled holozoa into more complex multicellular animals
  • Found in the Scottish Highlands, the fossil suggests the evolution of animals occurred at least one billion years ago and may have occurred in freshwater lakes rather than the ocean

A billion year old fossil, which provides a new link in the evolution of animals, has been discovered in the Scottish Highlands.

A team of scientists, led by the University of Sheffield in the UK and Boston College in the USA, has found a microfossil which contains two distinct cell types and could be the earliest multicellular animal ever recorded.

The fossil reveals new insight into the transition of single celled organisms to complex multicellular animals. Modern single celled holozoa include the most basal living animals, the fossil discovered shows an organism which lies somewhere between single cell and multicellular animals.

The fossil has been described and formally named Bicellum Brasieri in a new research paper published in Current Biology.

Professor Charles Wellman, one of the lead investigators of the research, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, said: “The origins of complex multicellularity and the origin of animals are considered two of the most important events in the history of life on Earth, our discovery sheds new light on both of these.

“We have found a primitive spherical organism made up of an arrangement of two distinct cell types, the first step towards a complex multicellular structure, something which has never been described before in the fossil record.

“The discovery of this new fossil suggests to us that the evolution of multicellular animals had occurred at least one billion years ago and that early events prior to the evolution of animals may have occurred in freshwater like lakes rather than the ocean.”

Professor Paul Strother, lead investigator of the research from Boston College, said: “Biologists have speculated that the origin of animals included the incorporation and repurposing of prior genes that had evolved earlier in unicellular organisms.

“What we see in Bicellum is an example of such a genetic system, involving cell-cell adhesion and cell differentiation that may have been incorporated into the animal genome half a billion years later.”

Fossil showing two cell types
Image of the fossil. Credit: Professor Paul Strother

The fossil was found at Loch Torridon in the Northwest Scottish Highlands. Scientists were able to study the fossil due to its exceptional preservation, allowing them to analyse it at a cellular and subcellular level.

The team hope to now examine the Torridonian deposits for more interesting fossils which could provide more insight into the evolution of multicellular organisms.

The research is mainly funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).


Additional information

A possible billion-year-old holozoan with differentiated multicellularity - full paper

Department of Animal and Plant Sciences 

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