Rice University Assistant Professor Nicholas Putnam said the study focused on the Trichoplax, a simple saltwater creature that one might find anywhere in the world, even in a household aquarium.
"We're trying to identify, in the Trichoplax, genes that are also found in other animals -- our genome and the fruit fly genome and so on," said Putnam, the study's co-author, who noted recognizing common genes among many species helps scientists determine their lineage, as well as where they diverge.
What Putnam finds interesting about Trichoplax is how common some elements of its genetic code are to other classes of life.
"Trichoplax is a tiny little pancake of cells you can barely see without a microscope," he said. "And they're extremely simple -- about as simple as you can be -- just a disc of cells that's two layers thick."
But the researchers discovered humans share elements with the Trichoplax that only become evident through charting its DNA.
The study is detailed in the journal Nature.