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Evidence dates sponges 100 million years earlier than expected

Multicellular life far preceded the 'Cambrian explosion' 545 million years ago, according to researchers studying rocks from Oman.

February 07, 2009|Thomas H. Maugh II

Organic chemicals locked in rocks buried in south Oman indicate that multicellular animal life on Earth originated 100 million years earlier than previously believed -- well before the so-called Cambrian explosion 545 million years ago, when such complex organisms were thought to have begun evolving and proliferating dramatically.

The chemicals, steroids distantly related to testosterone and estrogen, are a unique marker for sponges.

Their presence in the Oman rock shows that these precursors of bathtub sponges were the dominant species on the planet for as long as 100 million years, researchers reported Thursday in the journal Nature.

Sponges are one of the simplest multicellular organisms alive. They live on shallow sea floors and eat detritus that drifts from above. The walls of their cells contain steroids called 24-isopropylcholestanes that are not present in other species.

"After four decades of research, they have never been seen in unicellular organisms other than in trace amounts," said earth scientist Gordon Love of UC Riverside, lead author of the paper.

Love and his colleagues studied sedimentary rocks taken from the South Oman Salt Basin, a region rich in oil.

The rocks have been dated to between 550 million and 635 million years ago because they are covered with glacial deposits. (The oil, which is produced from multicellular plants and animals, dates from 530 million to 545 million years ago.)

Extracting and analyzing chemicals from the rocks, the team found relatively high levels of the 24-isopropylcholestanes -- high enough to convince them that sponges lived in the area throughout the entire period.

The discovery indicates that oxygen, which has long been seen as a precipitating factor in the Cambrian explosion, was present in sufficient quantities 100 million years earlier than previously believed. During this period of very cold temperatures, called the Neoproterozoic, the sponges would have thrived because there were no predators to feed on them.

Only when the climate warmed sufficiently did other species begin to appear, Love said.

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thomas.maugh@latimes.com

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