Large, multicellular life forms may have appeared on Earth one billion years earlier than was previously thought.

Macroscopic multicellular life had been dated to around 600 million years ago, but new fossils suggest that centimetres-long multicellular organisms existed as early as 1.56 billion years ago. Maoyan Zhu at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Nanjing and his colleagues report the discovery of well-preserved fossils from northern China showing organisms up to 30 centimetres in length. The creatures' cells measure 6–18 micrometres in diameter and are closely packed. From comparisons with modern organisms, the authors suggest that the fossils were probably photosynthetic eukaryotes similar to modern algae.

The finding challenges the idea that this period of evolution was relatively uneventful, the authors say.

Nature Commun. 7, 11500 (2016)