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Geobiologists propose that the earliest complex organisms fed by absorbing ocean buffet
Date:8/19/2009

Blacksburg, Va. -- Research at Virginia Tech has shown that the oldest complex life forms -- living in nutrient-rich oceans more than 540 million years ago likely fed by osmosis.

The researchers studied two groups of modular Ediacara organisms, the fern-shaped rangeomorphs and the air mattress-shaped erniettomorphs. These macroscopic organisms, typically several inches in size, absorbed nutrients through their outer membrane, much like modern microscopic bacteria, according to the cover story of the Aug. 25, 2009 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), "Osmotrophy in modular Edicara organisms," by Marc Laflamme, Shuhai Xiao, and Michal Kowalewski. Laflamme, now a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at Yale University, did the research as a postdoc in Xiao's lab at Virginia Tech. Xiao and Kowalewski are professors of geobiology in the College of Science at Virginia Tech.

The rangeomorphs had a repeatedly branching system like fern leaves and the erniettomorphs had a folded surface like an inflated air mattress to make tubular modules. "These organisms are unlike any life forms since and so are poorly understood," said Laflamme.

Their feeding strategy has been a topic of controversy, with theories ranging from parasitism to symbiosis to photosynthesis. "Some hypotheses can be ruled out because the organisms lack feeding structures, such as tentacles or mouths, and because many of them lived in the deep ocean where there was no sunlight for photosynthesis" said Xiao.

The researchers decided to simulate various morphological changes in the overall construction of the organisms to test whether it would have been possible for them to attain surface area to volume ratios on the same order as modern bacteria that feed by osmosis. Theoretical models were constructed to explore the effects of length, width, thickness, number of modules, and presence of internal vacuoles,
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Contact: Susan Trulove
STrulove@vt.edu
540-231-5646
Virginia Tech
Source:Eurekalert

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