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Three-dimensional preservation of cellular and subcellular structures suggests 1.6 billion-year-old crown-group red algae

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 · 20 Mar 2017
Three-dimensional preservation of cellular and subcellular structures suggests 1.6 billion-year-old
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The ~1.6 Ga Tirohan Dolomite of the Lower Vindhyan in central India contains phosphatized stromatolitic microbialites. We report from there uniquely well-preserved fossils interpreted as probable crown-group rhodophytes (red algae). The filamentous form Rafatazmia chitrakootensis n. gen, n. sp. has uniserial rows of large cells and grows through diffusely distributed septation. Each cell has a centrally suspended, conspicuous rhomboidal disk interpreted as a pyrenoid. The septa between the cells have central structures that may represent pit connections and pit plugs. Another filamentous form, Denaricion mendax n. gen., n. sp., has coin-like cells reminiscent of those in large sulfur-oxidizing bacteria but much more recalcitrant than the liquid-vacuole-filled cells of the latter. There are also resemblances with oscillatoriacean cyanobacteria, although cell volumes in the latter are much smaller. The wider affinities of Denaricion are uncertain. Ramathallus lobatus n. gen., n. sp. is a lobate sessile alga with pseudoparenchymatous thallus, “cell fountains,” and apical growth, suggesting florideophycean affinity. If these inferences are correct, Rafatazmia and Ramathallus represent crown-group multicellular rhodophytes, antedating the oldest previously accepted red alga in the fossil record by about 400 million years.

The last common ancestor of modern eukaryotes is generally believed to have lived during the Mesoproterozoic era, about 1.6 to 1 billion years ago, or possibly somewhat earlier. We studied exquisitely preserved fossil communities from ~1.6 billion-year-old sedimentary rocks in central India representing a shallow-water marine environment characterized by photosynthetic biomats. We discovered amidst extensive cyanobacterial mats a biota of filamentous and lobate organisms that share significant features with modern eukaryotic algae, more specifically red algae. The rocks mainly consist of calcium and magnesium carbonates, but the microbial mats and the fossils are preserved in calcium phosphate, letting us view the cellular and subcellular structures in three dimensions with the use of synchrotron-radiation X-ray tomographic microscopy. The most conspicuous internal objects in the cells of the filamentous forms are rhomboidal platelets that we interpret to be part of the photosynthetic machinery of red algae. The lobate forms grew as radiating globular or finger-like protrusions from a common centre. These fossils predate the previously earliest accepted red algae by about 400 million years, suggesting that eukaryotes may have a longer history than commonly assumed.


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