The ability to construct mineralized shells, spicules, spines and skeletons is thought to be a key factor that fuelled the expansion of multicellular animal life during the early Cambrian. The genes and molecular mechanisms that control the process of biomineralization in disparate phyla are gradually being revealed, and it is broadly recognized that an insoluble matrix of proteins, carbohydrates and other organic molecules are required for the initiation, regulation and inhibition of crystal growth. Here, we show that Astrosclera willeyana, a living representative of the now largely extinct stromatoporid sponges (a polyphyletic grade of poriferan bauplan), has apparently bypassed the requirement to evolve many of these mineral-regulating matrix proteins by using the degraded remains of bacteria to seed CaCO3 crystal growth. Because stromatoporid sponges formed extensive reefs during the Paelozoic and Mesozoic eras (fulfilling the role that stony corals play in modern coral reefs), and fossil evidence suggests that the same process of bacterial skeleton formation occurred in these stromatoporid ancestors, we infer that some ancient reef ecosystems might have been founded on this microbial–metazoan relationship.
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