Volvox and the volvocine algae have long been a model system for understanding the evolution of multicellularity and cellular differentiation, but more recently they’ve emerged as an important model for the evolution of males and females. Sperm-producing males and egg-producing females have evolved independently in most multicellular lineages, so understanding how and why this happens is crucial for understanding the evolution of complex life.
It’s a near certainty that the unicellular ancestors from which animals, plants, fungi, seaweeds, and other complex multicellular organisms evolved were isogamous. In other words, they were capable of sexual reproduction, but the gametes that fused to form a zygote were the same size (“iso” – equal; “gamous” – gametes). In each of these lineages, large and small gametes evolved, resulting in a condition referred to as anisogamy (unequal gametes).
One really interesting thing about anisogamy is that unlike other forms of cellular differentiation, which result from non-genetic differences, the differences between sperm-producing males and egg-producing females are often genetically controlled. The most familiar way this happens is through sex chromosomes, such as the XY system in most mammals and the ZW system in birds, but there are lots of variations on this theme (check out the duck-billed platypus for an odd example).
Last month Takashi Hamaji and colleagues reported new results related to the evolution of anisogamy in the volvocine algae. The article, in Communications Biology, describes the genetic basis of sex (or mating type) determination in two volvocine species, isogamous Yamagishiella and anisogamous Eudorina. Apart from this difference in gametes, Yamagishiella and Eudorina are otherwise very similar: