Building on that work, Allen and colleagues explored the evolutionary history of diatoms, specifically P. tricornutum, and cellular mechanisms for nutrient utilization in the environment, leading to the finding that diatoms have a functional urea cycle.
This was a stunning discovery, says Allen, because it was thought that the urea cycle originated with the metazoan (animal) branch of life.
There it has played an important role in facilitating a wide range of physiological innovations in vertebrates.
For example, urea synthesis enables rapid control of minerals and salts in the blood in animals such as sharks, skates, rays and bony fish, and ammonia detoxification associated with water retention in amphibians and mammals.
The latter was likely a prerequisite for life on land, and subsequently enabled the biochemical pathways necessary for processing a high-protein diet.
Allen and others have now shown that the urea cycle originated hundreds of millions of years before the appearance of metazoans.