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Mills, Daniel B.; Francis, Warren R.; Vargas, Sergio; Larsen, Morten; Elemans, Coen P. H.; Canfield, Donald E.; Wörheide, Gert (2018): The last common ancestor of animals lacked the HIF pathway and respired in low-oxygen environments. In: eLife, Vol. 7, e31176
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Animals have a carefully orchestrated relationship with oxygen. When exposed to low environmental oxygen concentrations, and during periods of increased energy expenditure, animals maintain cellular oxygen homeostasis by enhancing internal oxygen delivery, and by enabling the anaerobic production of ATP. These low-oxygen responses are thought to be controlled universally across animals by the hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF). We find, however, that sponge and ctenophore genomes lack key components of the HIF pathway. Since sponges and ctenophores are likely sister to all remaining animal phyla, the last common ancestor of extant animals likely lacked the HIF pathway as well. Laboratory experiments show that the marine sponge Tethya wilhelma maintains normal transcription under oxygen levels down to 0.25% of modern atmospheric saturation, the lowest levels we investigated, consistent with the predicted absence of HIF or any other HIF-like pathway. Thus, the last common ancestor of all living animals could have metabolized aerobically under very low environmental oxygen concentrations.