Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Oldest Evidence of Organisms Moving on Their Own on Earth Discovered

The oldest evidence of living organisms moving on their own has been found, and the fossils are more than a billion and a half years older than previous proof.

An international and multi-disciplinary team coordinated by Abderrazak El Albani at the Institut de chimie des milieux et matériaux de Poitiers(CNRS/Université de Poitiers) has uncovered the oldest fossilized traces of motility. Motility is the ability of an organism to move independently, using metabolic energy.

 Whereas previous remnants were dated to 570 million years ago, this new evidence is 2.1 billion years old. They were discovered in a fossil deposit in Gabon, where the oldest multicellular organisms have already been found.1 These results appear in the 11 February 2019 edition of PNAS.
Credit; © A. El Albani / IC2MP / CNRS – Université de Poitiers


A few years ago, geologist Abderrazak El Albani and his team at the Institut de chimie des milieux et matériaux de Poitiers (CNRS/Université de Poitiers) discovered the oldest existing fossils of multicellular organisms in a deposit in Gabon. Located in the Franceville Basin, the deposit allowed scientists to re-date the appearance of multicellular life on Earth to 2.1 billion years – approximately 1.5 billion years earlier than previously thought (600 million). At the time, researchers showed that this rich biodiversity co-occurred with a peak in dioxygenation of the atmosphere,2 and developed in a calm and shallow marine environment.

In this same geological deposit, the team has now uncovered the existence of fossilised traces of motility. This shows that certain multicellular organisms in this primitive marine ecosystem were sophisticated enough to move through its mud, rich in organic matter.

Fossilised traces of motility found in 2.1 billion year-old rock. Scale bar: 1 cm.
Previously, the oldest traces of this kind found dated to approximately 600 million years ago: the Ediacaran period, also characterised by a peak in dioxygen and a proliferation in biodiversity.

Credit; © A. El Albani / IC2MP / CNRS - Université de Poitiers


The traces were analysed and reconstructed in 3D using X-ray computed micro-tomography, a non-destructive imaging technique. The more or less sinuous structures are tubular, of a generally consistent diameter of a few millimetres, and run through fine layers of sedimentary rock. Geometrical and chemical analysis reveals that they are biological in origin and appeared at the same time the sediment was deposited.

The traces are located next to fossilised microbial biofilms3 which formed carpets between the superficial sedimentary layers. It is plausible that the organisms behind this phenomenon moved in search of nutritive elements and the dioxygen, both produced by cyanobacteria.

What did these living elements look like? Though difficult to know for certain, they may have been similar to colonial amoebae, which cluster together when resources become scarce, forming a type of slug which moves in search of a more favourable environment.

Until now, the oldest traces of recognised movement were dated to 570 million years ago; an estimate which appeared to be confirmed by the molecular clock4. Evidence of motility found in rock that is 2.1 billion years old raises new questions regarding the history of life: was this biological innovation the prelude to more perfected forms of movement, or an experiment cut short by the drastic drop in atmospheric oxygen rates which occurred approximately 2.083 billion years ago?

Micro-tomography is used to display the 3D morphology of tubes reflecting the paths of movement through the sediment. The tubes are filled with pyrite crystals (generated by the transformation by bacteria of biological tissue) found in layers of clay minerals. Parallel horizontal layers are fossilised microbial mats.

Credit: © A. El Albani & A. Mazurier / IC2MP / CNRS – Université de Poitiers



Contacts and sources:
Véronique Etienne / Abderrazak El Albani
CNRS

Citation: Organism motility in an oxygenated shallow-marine environment 2.1 billion years ago.
Abderrazak El Albani, M. Gabriela Mangano, Luis A. Buatois, Stefan Bengtson, Armelle Riboulleau, Andrey Bekker, Kurt Konhauser, Timothy Lyons, Claire Rollion-Bard, Olabode Bankole, Stellina Gwenaelle Lekele Baghekema, Alain Meunier, Alain Trentesaux, Arnaud Mazurier, Jeremie Aubineau, Claude Laforest, Claude Fontaine, Philippe Recourt, Ernest Chi Fru, Roberto Macchiarelli, Jean Yves Reynaud, François Gauthier-Lafaye, Donald E. Canfield. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2019; 201815721 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1815721116


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