By Brandon Keim
An evolutionary transition that took several billion years to occur in nature has happened in a laboratory, and it needed just 60 days.
Under artificial pressure to become larger, single-celled yeast became multicellular creatures. That crucial step is responsible for life’s progression beyond algae and bacteria, and while the latest work doesn’t duplicate prehistoric transitions, it could help reveal the principles guiding them.
“This is actually simple. It doesn’t need mystical complexity or a lot of the things that people have hypothesized — special genes, a huge genome, very unnatural conditions,” said evolutionary biologist Michael Travisano of the University of Minnesota, co-author of a study Jan. 17 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In the new study, researchers led by Travisano and William Ratcliff grew brewer’s yeast, a common single-celled organism, in flasks of nutrient-rich broth.
Once per day they shook the flasks, removed yeast that most rapidly settled to the bottom, and used it to start new cultures. Free-floating yeast were left behind, while yeast that gathered in heavy, fast-falling clumps survived to reproduce.
Within just a few weeks, individual yeast cells still retained their singular identities, but clumped together easily. At the end of two months, the clumps were a permanent arrangement. Each strain had evolved to be truly multicellular, displaying all the tendencies associated with “higher” forms of life: a division of labor between specialized cells, juvenile and adult life stages, and multicellular offspring.
“Multicellularity is the ultimate in cooperation,” said Travisano, who wants to understand how cooperation emerges in selfishly competing organisms. “Multiple cells make make up an individual that cooperates for the benefit of the whole. Sometimes cells give up their ability to reproduce for the benefit of close kin.”
Since the late 1990s, experimental evolution studies have attempted to induce multicellularity in laboratory settings. While some fascinating entities have evolved — Richard Lenski’s kaleidoscopically adaptingE. coli, Paul Rainey’s visible-to-the-naked-eye bacterial biofilms — true multicellularity remained elusive.
According to Travisano, too much emphasis was placed on identifying some genetic essence of complexity. The new study suggests that environmental conditions are paramount: Give single-celled organisms reason to go multicellular, and they will.
Apart from insights into complexity’s origins, the findings could have implications for researchers in other fields. While multicellularity would have a hard time emerging now in nature, where existing animals have a competitive advantage, the underlying lesson of rapid, radical evolution is universal.
“That idea of easy transformability changes your perspective,” said Travisano. “I’m certain that rapid evolution occurs. We just don’t know to look for it.”
Targeted breeding of single-celled organisms into complex, multicellular forms could also become a biotechnological production technique.
“If you want to have some organism that makes ethanol or a novel compound, then — apart from using genetic engineering — you could do selection experiments” to shape their evolution, Travisano said. “What we’re doing right here, engineering via artificial selection, is something we’ve done for centuries with animals and agriculture.”