Multicellular Life: It Might Be Older Than You Think

Remember when all of those scientist people told us that multicellular life on Earth began about 1.9 billion years ago? New evidence suggests they might have been off by a few hundred million. Is it time for a Spore patch?

The earliest life on Earth were single cell creatures. Long before the dinosaurs, creatures like bacteria, amoebae, and fungi were the planet's only form of life, starting around three to four billion years ago. And while one could easily argue that such single celled creatures remain the dominant form of life on Earth, eventually some of the single cell critters decided it was time to evolve into more complex forms of life.

The evolution of single cell creatures into multicellular life forms didn't just happen once. It happened several times over, in multiple locations for multiple reasons. Some scientists surmise that the first multicellular life was a group of different single celled creatures grouping together (the Symbiotic theory). Others believe that colonies of the same type of organisms grew together to form multicellular life (the Colonial theory).

Scientists could argue this sort of thing for months on end, but there is one thing they generally agree on, and that's that the earliest multicellular life appeared on Earth approximately 1.9 billion years ago.

At least they agreed on it until sedimentologist Abderrazak El Albani of the University of Poitiers in France and friends started digging up fossils from the black shale formations of the Francevillian Basin in Gabon, Africa that date back 2.1 billion years.

More than 250 specimens have been unearthed, ranging up to 12cm in length. The size and shape would indicate that these are indeed multicellular organisms.

So what were these creatures? El Albani imagines they were something akin to jellyfish.

"This organism, in my opinion, was something very light, very gentle, very soft," El Albani speculated. Given the ubiquity of the radial structures among the highly diverse specimens, "I am sure that this radial fabric has some functionality for these specimens," he said, possibly for movement or fixation to the sediment, but "we have a lot of work [to do] " to determine what that function truly was. Still, the complexity and organisation of their structure "shows clearly that [these organisms were]multicellular," he insisted.

Of course things were different back then, so further study is required. Without similar specimens to compare them to, El Albani and colleagues can't come to any concrete conclusions. Science doesn't work like that. Science requires substantiated proof before they come out and declare something to be true, so even if the discovery seems like a sure thing, we'll have to wait for corroboration.

Still, enjoy being only 1.9 billion. We might have just aged 200 million years in the blink of an eye.

Earlier start to multicellular life? [The Scientist via Roger Ebert's Twitter]


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