Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cambrian Explosion: This Time Its The Calcium That Did It

Geological processes and evolution - 4

A short article in Science Daily describes research that suggests that a buildup of calcium in the oceans in the early Cambrian provided the necessary trigger for the Cambrian "explosion" - the pronounced expansion and diversification of multicellular groups of animals. Some of the best examples of this evolutionary radiation is preserved in deposits like the Burgess Shale and the Chengjiang strata.

Here is the one sentence summary-

The researchers succeeded to show that the massive and sudden surge in the calcium concentration of the Cambrian seawater -- that is believed to be the result of volcanically active mid-ocean ridges -- not only initiated the buildup of calcified shells, but was also mandatory for the aggregation and stabilization of multicellular sponge structures. This allows, on the other hand, to formulate a novel theory where the geologically induced increase of marine calcium might be the key for understanding the Cambrian Explosion of Life.

There is deja vu when I read another ultimate causative explanation for the Cambrian explosion. Over the years you could write a similar sentence but substitute the word calcium with the sudden increase in oxygen, the warming of the earth following the thawing of the snowball earth, the increase in shallow shelf areas following marine transgression, all proposed as a one point explanations of this evolutionary phase in earth history.

Reading the press release you get a sense that the Cambrian explosion coincided with the origin of multicelluarity. Take this sentence:

However, the causes of its origin have been the subject of debate for decades, and the question of what was the trigger for the single cell microorganisms to assemble and organize into multicellular organisms has remained unanswered until now.

Its important to make a distinction here between the origin of a system and its subsequent diversification. Groups like fungi, plants and animals have evolved multicellularity independently of each other.  Whatever triggered single celled animals to assemble into multicellular ones (metazoans), that transition did not happen in the Cambrian but much before in the late Proterozoic maybe as much as 50 -100 million years before.

The original study recognizes this point but it gets lost in the press release.

There is a good and improving fossil record of metazoans from the late Proterozoic Ediacaran fauna and other types of fossil preservation that indicates that  molecular mechanisms for cell to cell signaling and cell adhesion must have evolved well before the Cambrian. Multicellularity in animals originated long before the Cambrian explosion occurred and long before the rise of calcium in Cambrian sea-water.

The figure below summarizes the current fossil record of the evolution of metazoans. The Cambrian "explosion" corresponds with the Chengjiang fauna.

 Source: On The Origin of Phyla

Explanations of the origin of metazoans and subsequent evolutionary radiations like the Cambrian explosion involve long and intertwined causal chains. A rise in oxygen by late Proterozoic may have favored larger body size and one solution to achieve this large size was to aggregate into colonies of cells which eventually became integrated as one organism. The marine transgressions by late-Proterozoic early Cambrian expanded available shallow marine shelf areas and created large and diverse ecologic niches for evolutionary diversification to take place. The evolution of predation would have set forth selective pressures for skeletonization.  Many organisms would have taken opportunistic advantage of the rise of calcium in sea-water to boost skeletal production. Likewise calcium may have provided stability for even larger masses of cells to aggregate.

There were many geological and ecological factors at play feeding of each other that were responsible for one of the major transitions in the history of life. Insisting on just one cause as the most important to the exclusion of others is too simplistic.

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