Convergent evolution of soma in Astrephomene

A new paper by Shota Yamashita and colleagues explores the genetic basis for soma in one of the most mysterious volvocine algae, Astrephomene gubernaculifera. By combining whole genome sequencing with cell-type specific transcriptomics, they have shown that the gene or genes controlling germ/soma differentiation in Astrephomene are different from those in Volvox carteri, but the resulting cell-type specific differences in gene expression are similar between the two.

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Talking multicellularity on Demystifying Science

I had a great time talking about multicellularity, contingency, and all kinds of other things with Dr. Michael Shilo DeLay and Dr. Anastasia Bendebury on the Demystifying Science:

If you prefer to hear than see me blather on, the podcast is available here, but you’ll miss out on my Volvox wall art.

New book on the evolution of multicellularity

I haven’t been blogging much lately, and here’s one of the reasons: Peter Conlin, Will Ratcliff, and I have been editing a book on the evolution of multicellularity, which the publisher says will come out in late March, 2022. It’s available for preorder now, at a 20% discount.

The Evolution of Multicellularity

The Evolution of Multicellularity, cover art by Pedro Márquez-Zacarías

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What happened to those Cuban sonic weapons?

Now and again over the last three years, I’ve complained about credulous news sources taking seriously the absurd claims that the illnesses experienced by U.S. diplomats in Cuba were caused by mysterious attacks with a sonic weapon. Infuriatingly, some articles (this one from CNN, for example) quoted acoustic weapons experts saying that it couldn’t have been an acoustic weapon, then went on to assume that it was.

A new report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine considers the possible causes of the illnesses. Not surprisingly, their findings are being misreported.



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The enigmatic fungi

Last year, I argued that fungi are often excluded from conversations about the evolution of multicellularity (“Fungi are weird“):

Whenever we’re looking for commonalities among the various origins of complex multicellularity, commonalities that might suggest general principles for the transition to multicellular life, the fungi tend to either buck the pattern or provide an ambiguous fit. I have to admit that when fungi come up in these discussions, I have an unfortunate tendency to say “Who knows? Fungi are weird.” However, if László Nagy is right that complex multicellularity has arisen 8-11 times within the fungi, we might fairly say that the fungi include most origins of complex multicellularity. If so, maybe it’s not the fungi who are weird. If fungi truly include the majority of origins of complex multicellularity, fungi are the norm. Maybe it’s the rest of us that are weird.

I have finally gotten around to reading Maureen O’Malley’s Philosophy of Microbiology, which argues that any comprehensive theory of evolution needs to account for microbial life, life that often evolves in fundamentally different ways from the plants and animals on which most of the theory has been based. She makes a related, but broader, point:

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How old are the brown algae?

Don’t be fooled by brown algae. Kelps and their relatives could easily be mistaken for plants, with their stemlike stipes, leaflike blades, and rootlike holdfasts. Nothing could be further from the truth. You are more closely related to a shiitake than a kelp is to a kale.


Kelp, showing (from left to right) the blade, stipe, and holdfast. Jericho Beach, Vancouver, BC.

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