Doushantuo embryos dethroned?

Almost ten years ago, there was a spectacular fossil discovery in China: microfossils, tiny organisms preserved by phosphatization, that revealed amazing levels of fine detail. These specimens were identified as early animal embryos on the basis of a number of properties.

  • The cells were dimpled and shaped by adjoining cells, suggesting a flexible membrane—not a cell wall. This rules out algae, fungi, and plants.
  • The number of cells within each specimen was usually a power of 2. This is something we typically see in cleaving embryos, the sequence from 1 to 2 to 4 to 8 to 16 cells.
  • They were big. Typical somatic cells in animals are 5-10 µm in diameter, but ova can be a millimeter or more in diameter, and individual blastomeres (the cells in the cleavage stage embryo) can be several hundred µm across. These cells and the whole assemblage were in that size range.
  • The individual cells were uniform in size, as seen in many cleavage stage embryos, and contained organelles arranged in a consistent pattern.
  • They were often found encapsulated in a thin membrane, similar to the protective membrane around embryos.

There are some concerns about the interpretation, though. One troubling aspect of their distribution is that they are all only in the cleavage stage: we don't see any gastrulas, the stage at which embryonic cells undergo shape changes and begin to move in a specific, directed manner. Studies of taphonomy (analyses of the processes that lead to fossilization) have shown that these later stages are particularly difficult to preserve, which potentially explains why we're seeing a biased sample. Another unusual bias in the sample is that all of the embryos exhibit that regularity of division that produces equal-sized blastomeres—yet many invertebrate embryos have early asymmetric cleavages that produce recognizable, stereotyped distributions of cells. That asymmetry could be a feature that evolved late, but at the same time, some of the fossils were described as resembling molluscan trefoil embryos. Why aren't the examples of early asymmetry translated into a later asymmetry?

Now there's another reason to question the identity of the Doushantuo microfossils: they may be bacterial.

Continue reading "Doushantuo embryos dethroned?" (on Pharyngula)