Two new gene expression studies in Volvox

One of the most remarkable things about multicellular organisms is the differentiation of genetically identical cells into functionally specialized cell types. It’s difficult to say exactly how many cell types a given species has, since we would first have to say how different two cells need to be to count as different types. Nevertheless, it’s clear that there’s a wide range among different multicellular groups. Within animals, for example, placozoa have around five cell types, mammals over a hundred.

Amazingly, all of these very different cell types share a genome: your liver cells are pretty much genetically identical to your brain cells (and your skin cells, your kidney cells, your muscle cells…). The dramatic differences in form and function among all these cell types are mainly a result of differences in gene expression.

Volvox has just two cell types: a dozen or so big cells that are responsible for reproduction and one or two thousand smaller cells that bear the flagella that colonies use to swim:

Matt & Umen Fig 1A

Figure 1A from Matt & Umen 2017. Micrographs of an intact adult Volvox carteri spheroid with fully mature somatic and gonidial cells (left), isolated somatic cell (top right), and isolated gonidial cell (bottom right).

This was one of the main attractions for the researchers who developed Volvox as a model organism. With only two cell types, Volvox retains something close to its original form of cellular differentiation, making questions about how such differentiation evolved much more tractable.

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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).

Volvox 2015: cell differentiation

One of the most studied aspects of Volvox development is the differentiation of its 2000 or so cells into two types: a few (usually 12-16) large reproductive cells (germ) and the rest small, biflagellate cells that provide motility (soma). The main genes controlling this differentiation have long been known, but the details of how they work are still being worked out.

Erik Hanschen (left) with Cristian Solari, David Smith, and Jillian Walker

Erik Hanschen (left) with Cristian Solari, David Smith, and Jillian Walker

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Evolution of eusociality

Last month, two papers on the evolution of eusociality were published in high-profile journals: one by Karen M. Kapheim and colleagues in Science, the other by Sandra M. Rehan and Amy L. Toth in Trends in Ecology & Evolution (TREE). Social and eusocial insects are an attractive system for studying major transitions, sharing some of the key features that make the volvocine algae so good for this purpose: multiple, independent origins of traits thought to be important to the transition and extant species with intermediate levels of sociality. These features make the social insects, like the volvocine algae, well-suited for comparative studies.
Figure 1 from Rehan & Toth: (A) Overview of phylogeny of aculeate Hymenoptera (with the nonhymenopteran but eusocial termites as an outgroup), highlighting independent origins of sociality (colored branches), groups with species ranging from solitary to primitively social (green), primitively social to advanced eusocial (orange), solitary to advanced eusocial (blue), and all species advanced eusocial (grey). (B) The full range of the solitary to eusocial spectrum (blue) and predictions of which genomic mechanisms are hypothesized to operate at different transitional stages of social evolution (broken arrows).

Figure 1 from Rehan & Toth: (A) Overview of phylogeny of aculeate Hymenoptera (with the nonhymenopteran but eusocial termites as an outgroup), highlighting independent origins of sociality (colored branches), groups with species ranging from solitary to primitively social (green), primitively social to advanced eusocial (orange), solitary to advanced eusocial (blue), and all species advanced eusocial (grey). (B) The full range of the solitary to eusocial spectrum (blue) and predictions of which genomic mechanisms are hypothesized to operate at different transitional stages of social evolution (broken arrows).

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Expression and form: Arash Kianianmomeni on gene regulation

Figure 1 from Kianianmomeni 2015.

Figure 1 from Kianianmomeni 2015. Gene regulatory mechanisms behind the evolution of multicellularity. Model illustrating the role of gene regulatory mechanisms in the evolution of multicellular Volvox from a Chlamydomonas-like ancestor.

Arash Kianianmomeni’s latest paper in Communicative & Integrative Biology addresses the possible roles of gene regulation and alternative splicing in the evolution of multicellularity and cellular differentiation (Kianianmomeni, A. 2015. Potential impact of gene regulatory mechanisms on the evolution of multicellularity in the volvocine algae. Commun. Integr. Biol., 37–41. doi 10.1080/19420889.2015.1017175). The article is an ‘Addendum’ to a 2014 study by Kianianmomeni and colleagues in BMC Genomics. Communicative & Integrative Biology often invites authors to write these addenda after they have published a (usually high impact) paper elsewhere, providing authors the opportunity to publish material that was not included in the original paper due to space limitations or because it was opinionated or speculative. I may address the BMC Genomics article in a future post, but right now there is more new volvocine research than I have time to write about (it should be an exciting Volvox meeting this summer!).

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