Evolution of microRNAs in the volvocine algae

The following guest post was kindly provided by Dr. Kimberly Chen. I have edited only for formatting.

MicroRNAs (miRNAs) are a class of non-coding small RNAs that regulate numerous developmental processes in plants and animals and are generally associated with the evolution of multicellularity and cellular differentiation. They are processed from long hairpin precursors to mature forms and subsequently loaded into a multi-protein complex, of which the Argonaute (AGO) family protein is the core component. The small RNAs then guide the protein complex to recognize complementary mRNA transcripts and conduct post-transcriptional gene silencing.

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Origins of the sexes: isogamy and anisogamy

Sex didn’t always involve males and females. I know it still isn’t always between males and females, but that’s not what I mean. I mean that there was a time when sex was happening, but there were no males and females. Sex existed before males and females, and many species are still doing it without them.

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Initiation of cell division in Chlamydomonas

Deborah Shelton and colleagues have published a new article arguing that the reigning model of cell division initiation in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii needs to be revised [full disclosure: Dr. Shelton and I were labmates in Rick Michod’s lab at the University of Arizona]. The evolution of multicellularity almost certainly involved changes in cell cycle regulation; for example, there is good evidence that changes to the cell cycle regulator retinoblastoma were involved in the initial transition to multicellular life in the volvocine algae. So understanding cell cycle regulation is vital for understanding the evolution of multicellularity.

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Multicellularity rundown

Too many papers, not enough time: each of these deserves a deep dive, but my list just keeps getting longer, so I’m going to have to settle for a quick survey instead. To give you an idea of what I’m up against, these papers were all published (or posted to bioRxiv) in July and August, 2016. By the time I could possibly write full-length posts about them all, there would probably be ten more!

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Retrogenes in Volvox and Chlamy

The evolution of multicellularity in the volvocine algae appears to have happened primarily through co-option of existing genes for new functions. For example, the initial transition from a unicellular life cycle to a simple multicellular one involved the retinoblastoma gene, as Hanschen and colleagues elegantly demonstrated (see “The evolution of undifferentiated multicellularity: the Gonium genome“). A Volvox gene involved in cellular differentiation, regA, was likely co-opted from an ancestral role in environmental sensing, and a similar origin appears to explain the use of cyclic AMP for the signaling that causes multicellular aggregation in cellular slime molds (see “Volvox 2015: evolution“). 

Some of the changes leading to complex multicellularity, though, clearly did involve new genes. Two gene families involved in building the extracellular matrix that makes up most of a Volvox colony, the pherophorins and metalloproteinases, have undergone multiple duplication events leading to greatly expanded gene families (see “Heads I win; tails you lose: Evolution News & Views on Gonium, part 2“). One mechanism by which genes are duplicated is retroposition, in which a messenger RNA is reverse transcribed into DNA and inserted into the genome:

Fig S1A from Jakalski et al. 2016. Basic mechanism of retroposition. DNA is transcribed into a pre-mRNA by RNA polymerase, introns are spliced out, and a poly(A) tail is added to the 3′ end, resulting in a mature messenger RNA. The mRNA is then reverse-transcribed to DNA and inserted into a new genomic location.

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New position at Georgia Tech


Part of the reason posts at Fierce Roller have been so sparse lately is that I’ve been busy moving across the country. I’m now a Senior Research Scientist in the School of Biology at Georgia Tech. I’ll be running a small lab, with two (soon three) postdocs and a very talented grad student.

I spent exactly one day on campus before I left for the ASM Experimental Microbial Evolution meeting, on which I managed to meet with the grad student and one postdoc and to get hooked up to the campus wifi. I have not yet attended new employee orientation or been assigned an employee ID number, so the degree to which I’m actually employed at this moment is a bit murky. Hopefully I’ll get this all sorted next week.

Graduate student position in the Nedelcu lab

If you’re a fan of Volvox and the volvocine algae and have recently received an undergraduate degree in biology or a related field, now’s your chance to get serious about studying them. Aurora Nedelcu is looking for a graduate student to join her lab at the University of New Brunswick. Professor Nedelcu is a major player in the Volvox community, having published foundational papers on diverse aspects of volvocine biology and organized the first two international Volvox meetings. This is a great opportunity to join a vibrant and growing research community:

A graduate student position is available in the laboratory of Aurora Nedelcu, in the Department of Biology at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, CANADA. Research in our laboratory is directed towards understanding general, fundamental issues in evolution – such as the evolution of multicellularity, development, cell differentiation, sex, programmed cell death, altruism.  Our research is rooted in the framework of transitions in individuality and evolution of complexity (at a conceptual level), and of cellular responses to stress (at a more mechanistic level).  The experimental model-system we are currently using is the green algal group, Volvocales (see our Volvocales Information Project; http://www.unbf.ca/vip). Highly motivated students with interests in either theoretical/genomics or experimental/molecular approaches, and previous research experience are encouraged to apply. Interested applicants should e-mail a CV, summary of research experience and interests, unofficial transcripts, and contact information for three referees to anedelcu@unb.ca.

Applicants should meet the minimum requirements for acceptance in the Biology Department Graduate Program (see http://www2.unb.ca/biology/Degree_Info/Graduate.html).

The evolution of undifferentiated multicellularity: the Gonium genome

Blogging took a backseat to the wedding of two dear friends two weekends ago and to morel hunting last weekend, so I’m only now getting around to a post that should have been written weeks ago (I promised on April 22 that it would be out the following week). Last month, Erik Hanschen and colleagues published the Gonium pectorale genome, filling in some crucial bits of the transition to multicellular life in the volvocine algae. This was a big project, taking several years and involving over 20 authors from over a dozen institutions. The final paper is open access in Nature Communications.

I did post an effort to explain some aspects of the paper to the cdesign proponentsists at Evolution News and Views, who, by their own admission, failed to understand it (“After reading this paper, we’re none the wiser.”). I also complained of the science media’s tendency to refer to all algae as ‘pond scum.’ The lead author of the genome paper kindly followed up with a guest post addressing some of ENV‘s other misunderstandings, such as the purpose of model organisms in biology and the difference between ‘assertion’ and ‘evidence’. But now it’s time to dig into what the genome paper actually says.

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