A team from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) and its collaborators has sequenced the genomes of two species of small water creatures called acorn worms and showed that we share more genes with them than we do with many other animals, establishing them as our distant cousins.
The study found that 8,600 families of genes are shared across deuterostomes, a large animal grouping that includes a variety of organisms, ranging from acorn worms to star fishes, from frogs to dogs, to humans. This means that approximately 70% of our genes trace their ancestry back to the original deuterostome. By comparing the genomes of acorn worms to other animals, OIST scientists inferred the presence of these genes in the common ancestor of all deuterostomes, an extinct animal that lived half a billion years ago. This research shows that the pharyngeal gene cluster is unique to the deuterostomes and it could be linked to the development of the pharynx, the region that links the mouth and nose to the esophagus in humans. These findings were published in Nature, summarizing an international collaboration between OIST researchers and teams from the US, UK, Japan, Taiwan and Canada.
Around 550 million years ago, a great variety of animals burst onto the world in an event known as the Cambrian explosion. This evolutionary radiation revealed several new animal body plans, and changed life on Earth forever, as complex animals with specialized guts and behavioural features emerged. Thanks to the genome sequencing of multiple contemporary animals of the deuterostome group, we can go back in time to unveil aspects of the long-lost ancestor of this diverse group of animals.
Acorn worms are marine creatures that live on the ocean floor and feed by filtering a steady flow of sea water through slits in the region of their gut between mouth and esophagus. These slits are distantly related to the gills of fish, and represent a critical innovation in evolution not shared with animals like flies or earthworms. Since acorn worms occupy such a critical evolutionary position relative to humans the researchers sequenced two distantly related acorn worm species, Ptychodera flava, collected in Hawaii, and Saccoglossus kowalevskii, from the Atlantic Ocean. “Their genomes are necessary to fill the gap in our understanding of the genes shared by the common ancestor of all deuterostomes,” explains Dr Oleg Simakov, lead author of this study.