Experimental evolution of multicellularity

William C. Ratcliff, R. Ford Denison, Mark Borrello, Michael Travisano

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234 Scopus citations


Multicellularity was one of the most significant innovations in the history of life, but its initial evolution remains poorly understood. Using experimental evolution, we show that key steps in this transition could have occurred quickly. We subjected the unicellular yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae to an environment in which we expected multicellularity to be adaptive. We observed the rapid evolution of clustering genotypes that display a novel multicellular life history characterized by reproduction via multicellular propagules, a juvenile phase, and determinate growth. The multicellular clusters are uniclonal, minimizing within-cluster genetic conflicts of interest. Simple among-cell division of labor rapidly evolved. Early multicellular strains were composed of physiologically similar cells, but these subsequently evolved higher rates of programmed cell death (apoptosis), an adaptation that increases propagule production. These results showthat key aspects ofmulticellular complexity, a subject of central importance to biology, can readily evolve from unicellular eukaryotes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1595-1600
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jan 31 2012


  • Complexity
  • Cooperation
  • Individuality
  • Macro evolution
  • Major transitions

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