The genetic response to Snowball Earth: role of HSP90 in the Cambrian explosion


Corresponding author: M. E. Baker. Tel.: 858-755-7405; fax: 858-534-4812; e-mail:


The events that shaped the Cambrian explosion from 545 to 530 Ma, when multicellular animals suddenly appeared in the fossil record, are not fully understood. It is likely that the evolution of new transcription factors and other signal transduction proteins that regulated developmental networks was important in the emergence of diverse animal phyla seen in the Cambrian. I propose that one or both extensive glaciations that ended about 670 and 635 Ma were important in the evolution of signal transduction proteins in small animals in the Neoproterozoic/Proterozoic. These glaciations have been called Snowball Earth. One consequence of these glaciations is that they increased the expression of genetic diversity in animals due to the effect of extreme climatic stress on heat-shock protein 90 (HSP90). Climatic stress diverted HSP90 from chaperoning the folding and proper intracellular localization of many signal transduction proteins that regulate development in animals. As a result, pre-existing mutant signal transduction proteins and developmental pathways were expressed in animals. Selectively advantageous mutations were fixed in stem group animals and later were a source for the expansion of animal phyla during the Cambrian.