Genetic basis for soma is present in undifferentiated volvocine green algae

Z. I. Grochau-Wright, E. R. Hanschen, P. J. Ferris, T. Hamaji, H. Nozaki, B. J.S.C. Olson, R. E. Michod

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Somatic cellular differentiation plays a critical role in the transition from unicellular to multicellular life, but the evolution of its genetic basis remains poorly understood. By definition, somatic cells do not reproduce to pass on genes and so constitute an extreme form of altruistic behaviour. The volvocine green algae provide an excellent model system to study the evolution of multicellularity and somatic differentiation. In Volvox carteri, somatic cell differentiation is controlled by the regA gene, which is part of a tandem duplication of genes known as the reg cluster. Although previous work found the reg cluster in divergent Volvox species, its origin and distribution in the broader group of volvocine algae has not been known. Here, we show that the reg cluster is present in many species without somatic cells and determine that the genetic basis for soma arose before the phenotype at the origin of the family Volvocaceae approximately 200 million years ago. We hypothesize that the ancestral function was involved in regulating reproduction in response to stress and that this function was later co-opted to produce soma. Determining that the reg cluster was co-opted to control somatic cell development provides insight into how cellular differentiation, and with it greater levels of complexity and individuality, evolves.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1205-1218
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Evolutionary Biology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2017


  • VARL domain
  • gene duplication
  • germ-soma differentiation
  • major transitions
  • multicellularity
  • volvocine algae

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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