Big data renews fight over animal origins

Mar 27, 2017

By Amy Maxmen

Evolutionary biologists have battled for years over which animal lineage came first — sponges or comb jellies. The answer could transform how scientists understand the evolution of the human nervous system, digestive system and other complex traits.

A study published on 16 March in Current Biology, sides with the sponges, using an unprecedented array of genetic data to deduce that they were the first to branch off from the animal tree of life1. Sponges are simple creatures that lack a head, nerves and guts, so the conclusion makes intuitive sense. But big data doesn’t necessarily lead to better answers, some researchers warn.

“They’ve got a large data set, but almost certainly this is not the final word,” says David Hillis, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Texas at Austin who was not involved with the project. “This is just such a tough problem to solve.”

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