All multicellular creatures are descended from single-celled organisms. The leap from unicellularity to multicellularity is possible only if the originally independent cells collaborate. So-called cheating cells that exploit the cooperation of others are considered a major obstacle. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, Germany, together with researchers from New Zealand and the USA, have observed in real time the evolution of simple self-reproducing groups of cells from previously individual cells. The nascent organisms are comprised of a single tissue dedicated to acquiring oxygen, but this tissue also generates cells that are the seeds of future generations: a reproductive division of labour. Intriguingly, the cells that serve as a germ line were derived from cheating cells whose destructive effects were tamed by integration into a life cycle that allowed groups to reproduce. The life cycle turned out to be a spectacular gift to evolution. Rather than working directly on cells, evolution was able to work on a developmental programme that eventually merged cells into a single organism. When this happened groups began to prosper with the once free-living cells coming to work for the good of the whole.
Single bacterial cells of Pseudomonas fluorescens usually live independently of each other. However, some mutations allow cells to produce adhesive glues that cause cells to remain stuck together after cell division. Under appropriate ecological conditions, the cellular assemblies can be favoured by natural selection, despite a cost to individual cells that produce the glues. When Pseudomonas fluorescens is grown in unshaken test tubes the cellular collectives prosper because they form mats at the surface of liquids where the cells gain access to oxygen that is otherwise — in the liquid — unavailable.
Given both costs associated with production of adhesive substances and benefits that accrue to the collective, natural selection is expected to favour types that no longer produce costly glues, but take advantage of the mat to support their own rapid growth. Such types are often referred to as cheats because they take advantage of the community effort while paying none of the costs. Cheats arise in the authors’ experimental populations and bring about collapse of the mats. The mats fail when cheats prosper: cheats obtain an abundance of oxygen, but contribute no glue to keep the mat from disintegrating — the mats eventually break and fall to the bottom where they are starved of oxygen. More here From single cells to multicellular life: Researchers capture the emergence of multicellular life in real-time experiments