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Distinguished Scientist Shares Research on Earth's Earliest Sexual Reproduction  

By Michael Aushenker
Special to the Lookout

May 19, 2011 – Teasingly titled “Sex, Lives, and Measuring Tape: The Oldest Animals on Earth,” Dr. Mary L. Droser's lecture about the first of earth's creatures to swap DNA through sexual reproduction found a ready audience at Santa Monica College last week.

In a lecture hall packed with students and locals, Droser, chair of the Geology Department at UC Riverside, peppered her talk with humor as she showed slides of the fossil beds found there, laden with “snapshots” of the earth’s earliest organisms that lived 560 million years ago.

These are not mere reliefs but full 3-D fossils, comprehensive, resembling shark fins, capturing the “hundreds of square meters” of the long-gone undersea floor.

“The first five and six years of summers here, we did excavation,” Droser said, describing the long, “labor intensive” process it took to uncover the bedrocks and reconstruct these “textured organic surfaces,” like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

Each of the bedrocks, between them 250 square meters, contained 10,000 fossils.

“It’s like the earth’s first animals,” she said. “We can see them as they lived.”

Droser pointed to schematic and conceptual renderings of these early organisms, in addition to photos of the fossils she worked with.

“One of the things we’ve found is that tubular organisms were really, really common at this time,” she said.

The “juvenile attached” plant creatures “were size clustered like barnacles,” she added.

Synchronous aggregate growth evident among these specimens suggested the earliest cases of sexual reproduction – “a big strategy as it reduces gamete waste” – and 99 percent of the time, sexual reproduction with egg and sperm occured via hermaphroditic animals or male/female combinations.

“It is a precursor of life to come,” she said.

Droser’s discoveries in this realm were substantial, and she recalled that, after wrapping up her research, “My husband, who is British, said, ‘I hope it makes it to the Daily Mail!’”

Indeed, the news landed on page three of the tabloid, under the headline “First Sex Was 570M Years Ago.” They asked Droser about a fossil specimen.

“And the worst thing is, it’s named after my mother!” said Droser.

A London Times reporter also called just as the couple were picking up Droser’s mother from LAX. They interviewed Droser and her husband at length, and they asked Droser’s mother how she felt about the news.

“Well, I’m a grandmother of 11, I think sex is great!” Droser’s mother responded.

Of all that was discovered about the first recorded sexual reproduction, “The only quote that gets into the paper is from my mother!” Droser said.

Droser’s visit concludes SMC’s Spring 2011 Distinguished Scientists Lecture Series, a program sponsored by the SMC Associates, a program of the Santa Monica College Foundation, and the SMC Life and Sciences and Physical Sciences Departments.

Droser’s lecture followed a February visit by Dr. Jean Gebman, a senior engineer at RAND, whose lecture was provocatively titled “First in Space, but Losing the Race,” and “Genes, Peoples, and Cuisines,” Dr. Richard Delerins’ anthropological look at cultural food choices and practices, which he delivered in March.


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