Tiny Worm May Be Earliest Human Progenitor
March 28, 2013

Tiny Controversial Worm May Be Earliest Forefather Of Mankind

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A little worm, the Xenoturbella bocki, is causing a lot of contention amongst scientists debating whether it truly was the ancestor of mankind.  A new study involving the University of Gothenburg and the Gothenburg Natural History Museum indicates that the worm is indeed mankind's progenitor.

Xenoturbella bocki is a one-centimeter-long worm built on a simple body plan that lacks a brain, sexual organs and other vital organs. It is only regularly found off the west coast of Sweden.

There has been a long-standing disagreement between zoologists about whether or not the worm holds a key position in the evolution of the animal tree of life. If, as some scientists believe, it does hold this critical position, it becomes essential to the understanding of the evolutionary development of organs and cell functions, such as stem cells. This makes the question of the worm's place in life´s family tree not only important in the field of biology but for future biomedical applications as well.

"It's absolutely fantastic that one of the key evolutionary organisms in the animal kingdom lives right on the doorstep of the University of Gothenburg's Centre for Marine Research. And this is actually the only place in the whole world where you can do research on the creature," says Matthias Obst from the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Gothenburg.

According to genetic studies, X. bocki belongs to the superphylum of animals known as deuterostomes, the group to which man also belongs.

"So maybe we're more closely related to the“¯Xenoturbella bocki worm, which doesn't have a brain, than we are to lobsters and flies, for example," says Obst.

Obviously, the worm bears little anatomical resemblance. However, developmental biologists have argued that the early embryonic development of the worm may display similarities to the deuterostomes. Until now, however, no one has been able to observe the early development of the tiny invertebrate creature.

A collaboration of researchers between the two institutions have succeeded in doing what has never been done before: isolating newly born little X. bocki worms.

"And these new-born worms revealed absolutely no remnants at all of advanced features! Instead, they exhibit similarities with quite simple, ancient animals such as corals and sponges," says Obst.

The study, published in Nature Communications, also illustrates the value of the University of Gothenburg's marine stations for important research.

"The Lovén Centre at the University of Gothenburg is the only place in the whole world where you can study this paradoxical animal (in Swedish called 'Paradox worm'). That's one reason why researchers come from all over the world to Gullmarsfjorden to solve one of the great mysteries in the evolution of animal life," explains Matthias Obst.