Lurking in the blood of tropical snails is a single-celled creature called Capsaspora owczarzaki. This tentacled, amoebalike species is so obscure that no one even noticed it until 2002. And yet, in just a few years it has moved from anonymity to the scientific spotlight. It turns out to be one of the closest relatives to animals. As improbable as it might seem, our ancestors a billion years ago probably were a lot like Capsaspora.
The origin of animals was one of the most astonishing and important transformations in the history of life. From single-celled ancestors, they evolved into a riot of complexity and diversity. An estimated seven million species of animals live on earth today, ranging from tubeworms at the bottom of the ocean to elephants lumbering across the African savanna. Their bodies can total trillions of cells, which can develop into muscles, bones and hundreds of other kinds of tissues and cell types.
The dawn of the animal kingdom about 800 million years ago was also an ecological revolution.
Animals devoured the microbial mats that had dominated the oceans for more than two billion years and created their own habitats, like coral reefs.
The origin of animals is also one of the more mysterious episodes in the history of life. Changing from a single-celled organism to a trillion-cell collective demands a huge genetic overhaul. The intermediate species that might show how that transition took place have become extinct.
“We’re just missing the intervening steps,” said Nicole King, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Berkeley.
To understand how animals took on this peculiar way of life, scientists are gathering many lines of evidence. Some use rock hammers to push back the fossil record of animals by tens of millions of years. Others are finding chemical signatures of animals in ancient rocks. Still others are peering into the genomes of animals and their relatives like Capsaspora, to reconstruct the evolutionary tree of animals and their closest relatives. Surprisingly, they’ve found that a lot of the genetic equipment for building an animal was in place long before the animal kingdom even existed.
It was only in the past few years that scientists got a firm notion of what the closest relatives to animals actually are. In 2007, the National Human Genome Research Institute started an international project to compare DNA from different species and draw a family tree. The cousins of animals turn out to be a motley crew. Along with the snail-dwelling Capsaspora, our close relatives include choanoflagellates, amoebalike creatures that dwell in fresh water, where they hunt for bacteria.
Now scientists are trying to figure out how a single-celled organism like Capsaspora or choanoflagellates became a multicellular animal. Fortunately, they can get some hints from other cases in which microbes made the same transition. Plants and fungi evolved from single-celled ancestors, as well as dozens of other less familiar lineages, from brown algae seaweed to slime molds.
Primitive multicellularity may have been fairly easy to evolve. “All that has to happen is that the products of cell division stick together,” said Richard E. Michod of the University of Arizona. Once single-celled organisms shifted permanently to colonies, they could start specializing on different tasks. This division of labor made the colonies more efficient. They could grow faster than less specialized colonies.