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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2008 Jul 22;105(29):9897-902. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0803975105. Epub 2008 Jul 15.

Sterols in a unicellular relative of the metazoans.

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Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.


Molecular clocks suggest that animals originated well before they first appear as macroscopic fossils, but geologic tests of these hypotheses have been elusive. A rare steroid hydrocarbon, 24-isopropylcholestane, has been hypothesized to be a biomarker for sponges or their immediate ancestors because of its relatively high abundance in pre-Ediacaran to Early Cambrian sedimentary rocks and oils. Biolipid precursors of this sterane have been reported to be prominent in several demosponges. Whether 24-isopropylcholestane can be interpreted as a sponge (and, hence, animal) biomarker, and so provide clues about early metazoan history, depends on an understanding of the distribution of sterol biosynthesis among animals and their protistan relatives. Accordingly, we characterized the sterol profile of the choanoflagellate Monosiga brevicollis, a representative of the unicellular sister group of animals. M. brevicollis does not produce a candidate sterol precursor for 24-isopropylcholestane under our experimental growth conditions. It does, however, produce a number of other sterols, and comparative genomics confirms its biosynthetic potential to produce the full suite of compounds recovered. Consistent with the phylogenetic position of choanoflagellates, the sterol profile and biosynthetic pathway of M. brevicollis display characteristics of both fungal and poriferan sterol biosynthesis. This is an example in which genomic and biochemical information have been used together to investigate the taxonomic specificity of a fossil biomarker.

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