Volvox 2015: me and my horsy and a quart of beer


Licensed to Ill

When I was a senior in high school, I gave my friend Arthur Malpere a ride to school in my ’77 MGB just about every day (well, every day it was running). I had a cassette of the then fairly new Licensed to Ill, and Art insisted that we listen to it every damn day. The ride to school was on the order of ten minutes, so we would listen to ten minutes on the way to school, then pick up where we left off, usually mid-song, on the way home (for those of you too young to remember cassettes, it wasn’t trivial to return to the beginning of a song). Of all the outstanding songs on that album, possibly my favorite was “Paul Revere,” a sort of old-west style automythology of the band’s origin (in spite of the casual misogyny, I still do like it pretty well).

All three of the Volvox conferences to date have included an art/video/poetry contest, and this year’s winner, Zach Grochau-Wright, was kind enough to let me post his entry. Sadly, no one thought to video Zach’s actual performance, but if he does upload a version to youtube, I’ll be sure to post a link.


Volvocine Rap

Based on “Paul Revere” by the Beastie Boys

Written by Zach Grochau-Wright


Now here’s a little story I like to tell

About a group of algae you know so well

It started way back in history

At the origin of the Volvocales!

It started with a cell like Chlamydomonas

Transitions in individuality it’ll show us

Swimming in a pool, keeping it’s cool

Trying to photosynthesize, like you learned in school

One lonely unicell she be

All by herself with no body

The sun is beating down in the chloroplast

‘Means the sugar’s getting made, the cell is getting fat

Now the cell has almost reached the threshold size

‘Means it’s time to start getting ready to divide


The cell enters the first stages of mitosis

Dividing into two right before us

Next comes four, then eight, then sixteen

Palintomy gives powers of two when dividing

But something’s amiss

Flawed cytokinesis?

The cell’s formed a collective

Separation was defective

Have to cooperate to form a new level

Become multicellular like the Tasmanian Devil

Now the cells are cooperating as a group

Swimming together like a disciplined troop

The colony’s all undifferentiated cells

Only modest tweaks to flagellar organelles

Cooperation’s high due to cells being kin

You think the story’s over, but it’s ready to begin


Major transitions can be rough

Cell level constraints make it tough

To make a colony, a cell needs to grow big

But constraints make development a tough gig

Beat cell limits for selection’s favor

One answer is the division of labor

Some cells do this, others do that

Each playing their part like a professional act

Some do survival, others reproduction

Working together for optimal function

But which cells do what must be controlled

So that adaptations can be kept ahold

Comparative genomics shows modest expansion

Evolution works subtler than imagined

But a few gene family expansions were key

Especially for increasing size of the body

One such family is the pheophorines

Metalloproteases give us more ones

Cell cycle evolution played a role

The number of cells must be controlled

Evolving inversion is also key

Unless you’re Astrephomene

But what gene controls cell specialization?

Whose mutation causes regeneration

The gene regA, which deserves respect

Chloroplast biogenesis is what it effects

Originating with the Volvocaceae

Its original function is a mystery

To control somatic cells it was co-opted

A changed geno-pheno map was adopted

With soma on survival and reproduction by the germ

The evolutionary transition has come full term


Leave a Reply