A twelve-step program for evolving multicellularity and a division of labor



The volvocine algae provide an unrivalled opportunity to explore details of an evolutionary pathway leading from a unicellular ancestor to multicellular organisms with a division of labor between different cell types. Members of this monophyletic group of green flagellates range in complexity from unicellular Chlamydomonas through a series of extant organisms of intermediate size and complexity to Volvox, a genus of spherical organisms that have thousands of cells and a germ–soma division of labor. It is estimated that these organisms all shared a common ancestor about 50 ± 20 MYA. Here we outline twelve important ways in which the developmental repertoire of an ancestral unicell similar to modern C. reinhardtii was modified to produce first a small colonial organism like Gonium that was capable of swimming directionally, then a sequence of larger organisms (such as Pandorina, Eudorina and Pleodorina) in which there was an increasing tendency to differentiate two cell types, and eventually Volvox carteri with its complete germ–soma division of labor. BioEssays 27:299–310, 2005. © 2005 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.