WALNUT CREEK, Calif. As Aesop said, appearances are deceivingeven in life's tiniest critters. From first detection in the 1880s, clinging to the sides of an aquarium, to its recent characterization by the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI), a simple and primitive animal, Trichoplax adhaerens, appears to harbor a far more complex suite of capabilities than meets the eye. The findings, reported in the August 21 online edition of the journal Nature, establish a group of organisms as a branching point of animal evolution and identify sets of genes, or a "parts list," employed by organisms that have evolved along particular branches.
With each sequenced genome, another dataset is made available to advance the quest of evolutionary biologists seeking to reconstruct the tree of life. The analysis of the 98 million base pair genome of Trichoplax (literally "hairy-plate") illuminates its ancestral relationship to other animals. Trichoplax is the sole member of the placozoan ("tablet," or "flat" animal) phylum, whose relationship to other animals, such as bilaterians (humans, flies, worms, snails, et al) and cnidarians (jellyfish, sea anemones, corals, et al), and sponges is contentious.
"Our whole genome analysis supports placing the placozoans after the sponge lineage branched from other animals," said Daniel Rokhsar, the publication's senior author, DOE JGI's head of Computational Genomics Program, and Professor of Genetics, Genomics and Development at the University of California, Berkeley.
"Trichoplax has had just as much time to evolve as humans, but because of its morphological simplicity, it is tempting to think of it as a surrogate for an early animal," said Mansi Srivastava, the study's first author, a graduate student under the direction of Rokhsar, at the Center for Integrative Genomics, U.C. Berkeley.
Earlier mitochondrial DNA studies suggested that this "mother of all metazoans
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DOE/Joint Genome Institute