'Cookie-shaped' fossils point to multicellular life

Fossil (©El Albani - Mazurier) A virtual reconstruction of the inner and outer form of one of the fossils

Related Stories

Relics of some of the first stirrings of modern life may have been uncovered.

Scientists report in the journal Nature the discovery of centimetre-sized fossils they suggest are the earliest known examples of multicellular life.

The specimens, from Gabon, are 2.1 billion years old - 200 million years older than for any previous claim.

Abderrazak El Albani and colleagues describe the fossils' distinctive appearance as resembling irregularly shaped "wrinkly cookies".

The step from single-celled to multicellular organisation was a key step in the evolution of life on Earth and set the scene for the eventual emergence of all complex organisms, including animals and plants.

The big question is whether the new West African specimens truly represent large organisms growing in a co-ordinated manner, or are merely a record of the remains of aggregations of unicellular bacteria.

The team tells Nature that its analysis of the fossils' three-dimensional structure using X-ray microtomography leans it towards the former explanation.

The fossils would have existed during a period in Earth history that came shortly after the so-called Great Oxidation Event, when free oxygen concentrations in the atmosphere rose rapidly.

Another oxygen surge that occurred about half a billion years ago co-incided with the Cambrian Explosion - the huge spurt in evolution that established all the major animal groupings.

"The evolution of the Gabon macrofossils, representing an early step toward large-sized multicellularity, may have become possible by the first boost in oxygen," Dr El Albani and colleagues said in a statement, "whereas the Cambrian Explosion could have been fuelled by the second.

"Why it took 1.5 billion years for the multicellular organisms to take over is currently one of the great unsolved mysteries in the history of the biosphere."

Gabonese fossils (El Albani) The Gabonese fossils were laid down in shales

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites

More Science & Environment stories



  • Mukesh SinghNo remorse

    Delhi bus rapist says victim shouldn't have fought back

  • Aimen DeanI spied

    The founder member of al-Qaeda who worked for MI6

  • Before and after shotsPerfect body

    Just how reliable are 'before and after' photos?

  • Woman with closed eyeStrange light show

    What do you see when you close your eyes?

  • Sony WalkmanLost ideas

    What has happened to Japan's inventors?

Try our new site and tell us what you think. Learn more
Take me there

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.