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Evolution of the penis worm

5 December 2006

Images of the developmental stages of embryos more than half a billion years old were reported by Dr Phil Donoghue

Because of their tiny size and precarious preservation, embryos are the rarest and most precious of all fossils. They contain information about  the evolutionary changes that have occurred in embryos over the past 500 million years. Donoghue and colleagues had to process 12 tons of rocks in order to find a few hundred embryos.

In one instance they have exposed the internal anatomy of a close relative of the living penis worm. Another case has revealed a unique pattern for making embryonic worm segments, not seen in any animals living today.

The images were revealed using a revolutionary new technique – synchrotron-radiation X-ray tomographic microscopy.

Phil Donoghue/Department of Earth Sciences


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