Dataset Open Access

Meta-population structure and the evolutionary transition to multicellularity

Rose, Caroline J.; Hammerschmidt, Katrin; Pichugin, Yuriy; Rainey, Paul B.

The evolutionary transition to multicellularity has occurred on numerous occasions, but transitions to complex life forms are rare. While the reasons are unclear, relevant factors include the intensity of within- versus between-group selection that are likely to shape the course of life cycle evolution. A highly structured environment eliminates the possibility of mixing between evolving lineages, thus ensuring strong competition between groups. Less structure intensifies competition within groups, decreasing opportunity for group-level evolution. Here, using populations of the bacterium Pseudomonas fluorescens, we report the results of experiments that explore the effect of lineage mixing on the evolution of nascent multicellular groups. Groups were propagated under regimes requiring reproduction via a life cycle replete with developmental and dispersal (propagule) phases, but in one treatment lineages never mixed, whereas in a second treatment, cells from different lineages experienced intense competition during the dispersal phase. The latter treatment favoured traits promoting cell growth at the expense of traits underlying group fitness, a finding that is supported by results from a mathematical model. Together our results show that the transition to multicellularity benefits from ecological conditions that maintain discreteness not just of the group (soma) phase, but also of the dispersal (germline) phase.

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