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Evolutionary biology provides clues to single-celled common ancestor

30 January 2009

One hundred and fifty years after Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published, BBSRC-funded scientists at the Universities of York and Birmingham are starting to uncover the earliest stages in the evolution of animals. The researchers’ recent DNA sequence analyses are shedding light on the last common ancestor of multicellular animals, such as mammals, and their closest living relatives – the choanoflagellates. The work was carried out by Dr Martin Carr and Professor Sandra Baldauf, both from the University of York and Dr Barry Leadbeater from the University of Birmingham.

Choanoflagellates are aquatic, single-celled creatures that have long fascinated evolutionary biologists because they closely resemble the collared cells of sponges – indicating that they are closely related to true multicellular animals. Scientists originally thought that choanoflagellates could be an intermediate step towards multicellular life. But evidence has been emerging over the last decade that rejects the idea of animals evolving from a choanoflagellate ancestor.

Dr Carr said: “Our latest research has allowed us to examine some important trends in choanoflagellate evolution for the first time. The results suggest it is highly unlikely that animals evolved from a choanoflagellate ancestor. Instead, it seems that both groups share a common ancestor - so choanoflagellates are the closest known living relatives to true multicellular animals.”

Because the choanoflagellates and multicellular animals are closely related, comparisons between their physical and ecological characteristics will provide insights into their last common ancestor and the earliest stages of animal evolution.

Prof Baldauf said: “The first animals appeared as much as one billion years ago, so their last common ancestor with the choanoflagellates pre-dates much of the fossil record. It is only with molecular data that we can unravel these ancient relationships.”

“Modern evolutionary biology is increasingly reliant on DNA sequence information, detailed microscopic data and sophisticated analyses of fossils. So it has come a long way since Darwin’s time. However most of our basic concepts about evolution still come from Darwin’s early ideas.”

To celebrate the importance of modern evolutionary biology and the pioneering work of Charles Darwin, BBSRC is leading a UK Research Councils exhibition called Darwin Today, which launches in time for the anniversary of Darwin’s birth next month. Darwin Today will be touring this year across the UK, with 27 venues confirmed so far, and is designed to engage a wide family audience with Darwin’s ideas. Each of the venues hosting Darwin Today will be running their own Darwin-related events and activities alongside the exhibition. The tour starts at the Centre for life, Newcastle; Sensation, the Dundee Science Centre; and Living Coasts, Torquay in February.



The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £420M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.

The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research are Institutes of BBSRC. The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

About the UK Research Councils

The seven Research Councils are independent non-departmental public bodies, funded by the Science Budget through the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). They are incorporated by Royal Charter and together manage a research budget of over £2.8 billion a year.

The seven UK Research Councils are:

  • Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC)
  • Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
  • Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC)
  • Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
  • Medical Research Council (MRC)
  • Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
  • Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)

About Darwin Today

For more information see:

About Darwin 200

Darwin200 was a national programme of events celebrating Charles Darwin’s scientific ideas and their impact around his two hundredth birthday on 12 February 2009. Darwin200 was supported by the Wellcome Trust, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the British Council.


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

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Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

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