Evolutionary Transitions to Multicellular Life published

Iñaki Ruiz-Trillo and Aurora Nedelcu have recently edited a new book on the evolution of multicellularity, Evolutionary Transitions to Multicellular Life.  The 22 chapters are divided into five sections: “Multicellularity in the Tree of Life,” “Model-Systems,” “Theoretical Approaches,” “Genomics Insights,” and “Molecular Mechanisms,” and the forward is written by Nicole King. Volvox  shows up in the chapters by Susan C. Sharpe, Laura Eme, Matthew W. Brown and Andrew Roger (“Timing the origins of multicellular eukaryotes through phylogenomics and relaxed molecular clock analyses”); by myself and Aurora Nedelcu (“Volvocine algae: from simple to complex multicellularity”); by Cristian A. Solari, Vanina J. Galzenati and John O. Kessler (“The evolutionary ecology of multicellularity: the volvocine green algae as a case study”); by John O. Kessler, Aurora M. Nedelcu, Cristian A. Solari and Deborah E. Shelton (“Cells acting as lenses: a possible role for light in the evolution of morphological asymmetry in the volvocine algae”); and by Daniel Lang and Stefan A. Rensing (“The evolution of transcriptional regulation in the Viridiplantae and its correlation with morphological complexity”).

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Friday Golden Fleece

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitas stuhlmanni

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitas stuhlmanni

Dating back to at least the 1970s, Washington politicians have a tradition of decrying scientific funding that they deem wasteful. From Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Award to Sarah Palin’s “fruit fly research in Paris, France” to Senator Tom Coburn‘s annual “Wastebook,” particular research projects that can be made to sound silly are singled out for ridicule. The politicians, of course, have every right to make these criticisms, but scientists often see them as unwelcome intrusions by elected officials who (almost always) lack the scientific background to understand the research they mock.
So how have the politicians done? Have the projects singled out for ridicule indeed been ridiculous wastes of taxpayer money? I (and hopefully some guest bloggers) will be taking a look at some of the criticized projects to understand just how insightful politicians are at identifying useless research.

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Congratulations to Maggie Boyd!

2015 UMCUR award winners with UM President Royce Engstrom.

2015 UMCUR award winners with UM President Royce Engstrom.

Undergraduate Maggie Boyd has been awarded the Life Sciences Poster Award in the University of Montana Conference for Undergraduate Research for her poster “Motility in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii.” This is kind of a big deal: only one poster award and one oral presentation award were bestowed in Life Sciences university-wide.

Maggie has also recently been awarded a Honerkamp-Smith Travel Grant to attend the Third International Volvox Meeting in Cambridge, U.K. this summer.

Pleodorina study featured on NAI website

My new paper in Evolutionary Ecology Research is currently featured on the NASA Astrobiology Institute website (“Algae Fitness and Multicellular Life“). This was the final chapter of my Ph.D. dissertation, and it describes an artificial selection experiment using Pleodorina starrii. The paper is co-authored by my Ph.D. advisor, Rick Michod, and two (then) undergraduates, Susma Ghimire and Conner Vinikoor.
Pleodorina starrii

A 32-celled colony of Pleodorina starrii with 12 somatic cells.

Pleodorina is considered “partially differentiated,” meaning that some of its cells are of the ancestral, undifferentiated type (like those of Eudorina) and some are differentiated as somatic cells. These somatic cells never grow much, and they never divide to form daughter colonies.

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Ann Gauger teaches us about Volvox, part 2

Last time, I criticized Ann Gauger’s Evolution News and Views article “A Simple Transition to Multicellularity — Not!” for asserting that the requirement for kinesins in Volvox inversion implied a requirement for novel genes in the evolution of multicellularity. In a similar vein, Dr. Gauger presents programmed cell death and sex as problems for this transition:
The somatic cells commit suicide by a process known as apoptosis — programmed cell death — that I wrote about here. This process involves a minimum of several novel genes as well.
Where does this assertion that programmed cell death in Volvox “involves a minimum of several novel genes” come from? Programmed cell death (PCD) occurs in many unicellular eukaryotes, including Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. Furthermore, two types of metacaspases, genes involved in PCD in many algae and plants, are found in both Chlamydomonas and Volvox.
Metacaspases

Partial alignment of representative type I and type II metacaspase predicted sequences from red algae (Porphyra yezoensis; Py), green algae (Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, Cr; Volvox carteri, Vc), vascular plants (Arabidopsis thaliana; At), excavates (Trypanosoma cruzi, Tc; Leishmania braziliensis, Lb), diatoms (Thalassiosira pseudonana, Tp; Phaeodactylum tricornutum, Pt), haptophytes (Emiliania huxleyi; Eh), pelagophytes (Auroecoccus anaphagefferens; Aa), yeasts (Schizosaccharomyces pombe, Sp; Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Sc) showing the conservation of the cysteine-histidine dyad and the insertion characteristic of plant type II metacaspases. From Nedelcu, A.M. 2009. Comparative genomics of phylogenetically diverse unicellular eukaryotes provide new insights into the genetic basis for the evolution of the programmed cell death machinery. J. Mol. Evol., 68: 256–268. doi 10.1007/s00239-009-9201-1.

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Ann Gauger teaches us about Volvox, part 1

Over at Evolution News and Views (ENV), the blog for the Discovery Institute, Ann Gauger has a new article about Volvox (“A Simple Transition to Multicellularity — Not!”). This isn’t the first time ENV has weighed in on the evolution of multicellularity (see here and here, for example), but since their website doesn’t allow comments, this is the first time I’ve had a platform from which to respond.
The article starts out with a mostly accurate description of Volvox biology, although the description as
…among the simplest animals to have more than one cell type

is cringe-worthy: Volvox is no more an animal than is a tomato:

DogTomatoVolvoxTree

An accurate, if low-resolution, phylogeny.

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