Humans share genes with creatures that have no heads

Headless ocean creatures from 555 million years ago share genes with animals today, including humans.

The first multicellular organisms had no heads or limbs, and according to a study by the University of California at Riverside, share genes with modern animals, including humans.

One of the authors of the research, Mary Droser, explains that oceanic creatures from 555 million years ago, from the Ediacaran period, had no head or skeleton. Many of them probably looked like three-dimensional bath mats on the sea floor, round disks protruding. These animals are so rare and different that it is difficult to assign them to the modern categories of living organisms.

The well-preserved fossil records allowed us to relate the appearance and behavior of these animals with the genetic analysis of living beings today.

Dickinsonia fossil, an animal from the Ediacaran period. Source: Mary Droser

Animals from the Ediacaran period

For their analysis, the researchers analyzed four animals representing more than 40 recognized species that have been identified since the Ediacaran period. These creatures ranged in size from a few millimeters to nearly a meter in length.

All four animals were multicellular, with cells of different types. Most were symmetrical and their nervous systems and musculature were not centralized. One of those four were the Kimberella, teardrop-shaped creatures with a wide, rounded end and a narrow end that probably scraped the sea floor for food. Furthermore, they could move using a muscular foot like today’s snails, according to the authors.

The Ikaria, animals recently discovered by a team in which Mary Droser also participated, were also observed. They were roughly the size and shape of a grain of rice and represent the first bilaterals, that is, organisms with a front, a back, and openings at each end connected by an intestine.

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Furthermore, it appears that these animals could repair damaged parts of the body through a process known as apoptosis, or programmed cell death. The same genes involved are key elements of the human immune system, helping to eliminate precancerous and virus-infected cells. The report indicates that these animals probably already had the instructions responsible for the head and sensory organs usually found there. However, the necessary complexity in the interaction between these genes that would later give rise to these characteristics had not yet been reached.

Droser’s team said their work is a way to put these animals on the tree of life and show that they are genetically linked to current animals and to ourselves. In the future, they plan to investigate muscle development and functional studies to better understand the animals’ early evolution.

REFERENCE

Research shows that we are surprisingly similar to Earth’s first animals.

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