Geometry Shapes Evolution of Early Multicellularity

Eric Libby, William Ratcliff, Michael Travisano, Ben Kerr

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Organisms have increased in complexity through a series of major evolutionary transitions, in which formerly autonomous entities become parts of a novel higher-level entity. One intriguing feature of the higher-level entity after some major transitions is a division of reproductive labor among its lower-level units in which reproduction is the sole responsibility of a subset of units. Although it can have clear benefits once established, it is unknown how such reproductive division of labor originates. We consider a recent evolution experiment on the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae as a unique platform to address the issue of reproductive differentiation during an evolutionary transition in individuality. In the experiment, independent yeast lineages evolved a multicellular “snowflake-like” cluster formed in response to gravity selection. Shortly after the evolution of clusters, the yeast evolved higher rates of cell death. While cell death enables clusters to split apart and form new groups, it also reduces their performance in the face of gravity selection. To understand the selective value of increased cell death, we create a mathematical model of the cellular arrangement within snowflake yeast clusters. The model reveals that the mechanism of cell death and the geometry of the snowflake interact in complex, evolutionarily important ways. We find that the organization of snowflake yeast imposes powerful limitations on the available space for new cell growth. By dying more frequently, cells in clusters avoid encountering space limitations, and, paradoxically, reach higher numbers. In addition, selection for particular group sizes can explain the increased rate of apoptosis both in terms of total cell number and total numbers of collectives. Thus, by considering the geometry of a primitive multicellular organism we can gain insight into the initial emergence of reproductive division of labor during an evolutionary transition in individuality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalPLoS computational biology
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1 2014

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© 2014 Libby et al.

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