Agilent and the Holy Grail of Paleontology

In 1947, scientists uncovered fossils on a remote cliff face in Russia.  For 75 years, experts have disagreed what they are.  AmoebasLichen?  Now they know: it is “the Holy Grail of paleontology” – the oldest known animal on Earth.

These Ediacaran fossils are 558 million years old.  This is 20 million years earlier than the Cambrian Era, when scientists thought animal life began.  The organisms are symmetrical and oval-shaped, and are up to 1.4 meters long. (CNN)

In most cases, Ediacaran fossils are worn and weathered.  But a specimen from the Russian cliff – nicknamed “Dickinsonia” – was extraordinarily well preserved and free from contamination.  So rather than simply study the fossil’s structure, scientists were able to extract molecules from inside the fossil itself.  They analyzed the molecules using an Agilent gas chromatograph and discovered a combination of lipids (fats) that are characteristic of the animal kingdom.

The biomarker signature from the fossil sample “was a total, clear hit-in-the face animal signal,” says lead researcher Jochen Brocks.

“However alien they looked,” the researchers write, “the appearance of the Ediacara biota in the fossil record is not an independent experiment in large body size but indeed a prelude to the Cambrian explosion of animal life.”

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