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Lab yeast make evolutionary leap to multicellularity

IN JUST a few weeks single-celled yeast have evolved into a multicellular organism, complete with division of labour between cells. This suggests that the evolutionary leap to multicellularity may be a surprisingly small hurdle.

Multicellularity has evolved at least 20 times since life began, but the last time was about 200 million years ago, leaving few clues to the precise sequence of events. To understand the process better, William Ratcliff and colleagues at the University of Minnesota in St Paul set out to evolve multicellularity in a common unicellular lab organism, brewer's yeast.

Their approach was simple: they grew the yeast in a liquid and once each day gently centrifuged each culture, inoculating the next batch with the yeast that settled out on the bottom of each tube. Just as large sand particles settle faster than tiny silt, groups of cells settle faster than single ones, so the team effectively selected for yeast that clumped together.

Sure enough, within 60 days - about 350 generations - every one of their 10 culture lines had evolved a clumped, "snowflake" form. Crucially, the snowflakes formed not from unrelated cells banding together but from cells that remained connected to one another after division, so that all the cells in a snowflake were genetically identical relatives. This relatedness provides the conditions necessary for individual cells to cooperate for the good of the whole snowflake.
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TAGGED: BIOLOGY, EVOLUTION


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