Scientists using revolutionary new technology developed at The University of Nottingham have recorded the earliest evidence of animal life so far.
Using a scientific technique known as Hydropyrolysis (using hydrogen gas at high pressure) they have been able to date chemical fossils discovered in sedimentary rocks in Oman. The high-precision technique has shown that these fossil steroids, remnants of a type of sponge known as Demosponges, are between 635 and 750 million years old. They date back to around the time of the Marinoan glaciation, the last of the huge ice ages at the end of the Neoproterozoic era.
The research, published in Nature on February 5 2009, suggests that the shallow waters in some late Cryogenian ocean basins contained dissolved oxygen in concentrations sufficient to support simple multicellular animals at least 100 million years before the rapid diversification of bilaterians — early animals with a bilateral symmetry — during an interval known as the Cambrian explosion by palaeontologists.
Colin Snape, Professor of Chemical Technology and Chemical Engineering, in the School of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, said: “This landmark study on marine ecosystems was made possible by the unique capability of hydropyrolysis to release key biomarkers from ancient rocks with minimal structural alteration.”
Hydropyrolysis — also known as HyPy — was developed into a commercial system through collaboration with Engineering & Quality Systems and reactor engineering specialist Strata Technology. It was originally designed to liquefy large quantities of coal and strip down complex mixtures of organic chemicals down to their pure carbon skeletons. The technology, which recently won The 2008 Engineer Business Support and Universities Award, also has applications for detecting steroid abuse and cleaning up charcoal samples for radiocarbon dating.
Using biomarker analysis, the discovery, by an international research team from America, Australia and the UK, represents the oldest evidence for animals in the fossil record, and the first evidence for animals predating the termination of the Marinoan glaciations, the second of the two major glacial episodes of the Neoproterozoic which terminated 635 million years ago.
Dr Gordon Love, from the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of California, the principal author on the study said: “By establishing a robust stratigraphic and temporal framework for the Neoproterozoic-Cambrian South Oman Salt Basin strata and by employing state-of-the-art analytical techniques for biomarker recovery and analysis then we have unearthed the first fossil evidence for Cryogenian animals from the detection of anomalously high amount of distinctive steroids produced by sponges. We believe that we are converging on the correct date for the divergence of complex multicellular animal life, between 635 and 750 million years ago. It appears that the climatic shock of the two major glacial episodes of the Neoproterozoic caused a major reorganisation of marine ecosystems including the evolution of animal feeders living on the seafloor. In future, we and others will be screening other sedimentary rocks for animal steroids around and before the first glaciation event, the Sturtian, but so far no convincing signals have been detected prior to the Sturtian glaciation.”
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Notes to editors
: The University of Nottingham is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 100 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and Times Higher (THE) World University Rankings.
More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to RAE 2008, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranks the University 7th in the UK by research power. In 27 subject areas, the University features in the UK Top Ten, with 14 of those in the Top Five.
The University provides innovative and top quality teaching, undertakes world-changing research, and attracts talented staff and students from 150 nations. Described by The Times as Britain's "only truly global university", it has invested continuously in award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. Twice since 2003 its research and teaching academics have won Nobel Prizes. The University has won the Queen's Award for Enterprise in both 2006 (International Trade) and 2007 (Innovation — School of Pharmacy), and was named ‘Entrepreneurial University of the Year’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2008.