Researchers say they have uncovered a clue that may help to explain why the earliest evidence of complex multicellular animal life appears around 550 million years ago, after atmospheric oxygen levels on Earth dramatically rose, from 3% to the modern day level of 21%.

The group says humans share a method of sensing oxygen with the world's simplest known living animal, Trichoplax adhaerens, suggesting the method has been around since the first animals emerged around 550 million years ago and helps us understand how humans sense oxygen and how oxygen levels drove the very earliest stages of animal evolution.

Trichoplax adhaerens is a tiny seawater organism that lacks any organs and has only five types of cells, giving it the appearance of an amoeba. By analyzing how Trichoplax reacts to a lack of oxygen, the researchers found that it uses the same mechanism as humans - when the key enzyme from Trichoplax was put it in a human cell, it worked just as well as the human enzyme usually would.

The oxygen sensing process enables animals to survive better at low oxygen levels, or 'hypoxia'. In humans this system responds to hypoxia, such as is caused by high altitudes or physical exertion, and is very important for the prevention of stroke and heart attacks as well as some types of cancer.

Oxford Professor Chris Schofield, who led the research, said, "It's absolutely necessary for any multicellular organism to have a sufficient supply of oxygen to almost every cell and so the atmospheric rise in oxygen made it possible for multicellular organisms to exist.   But there was still a very different physiological challenge for these organisms than for the more evolutionarily ancient single-celled organisms such as bacteria. Being multicelluar means oxygen has to get to cells not on the surface of the organism. We think this is what drove the ancestors of Trichoplax adhaerens to develop a system to sense a lack of oxygen in any cell and then do something about it."

They also looked at the genomes of several other species and found that this mechanism is present in multi-cellular animals, but not in the single-celled organisms that were the precursors of animals, suggesting that the mechanism evolved at the same time as the earliest multicellular animals

Defects in the most important human oxygen sensing enzyme can cause polycythemia
- an increase in red blood cells. The work published today could also open up new approaches to develop therapies for this disorder.

Citation: Christoph Loenarz, Mathew L Coleman, Anna Boleininger, Bernd Schierwater, Peter W H Holland, Peter J Ratcliffe, Christopher J Schofield, 'The hypoxia-inducible transcription factor pathway regulates oxygen sensing in the simplest animal, Trichoplax adhaerens', EMBO reports (26 November 2010) doi:10.1038/embor.2010.170