Evolving Bodies: A Storify follow-up

In yesterday’s New York Times, I wrote about a new paper in which scientists report the evolution of single-celled yeast into multicellular snowflake-like “bodies.” Most (but not all) of the experts I contacted for the story had high praise for the study. (It also won an award when it was presented as a talk over the summer at the Society for the Study of Evolution.) Once the story appeared, however, some scientists took to Twitter to express their skepticism. As much as I like Twitter, this is one of the situations where it fails. You can’t have a conversation about genetics, lab strains versus wild types, etc., in 140 character chunks. At least not very satisfying ones.

So here’s what I decided to do last night. I used Storify to collect the comments of Leonid Kruglyak of Princeton and Michael Eisen of Berkeley, and then passed them on to Will Ratcliff, the lead author of the new study. He then responded. Below you’ll find the Storify tweets, and then Ratcliff’s response. Please continue the conversation in the comment thread. (And be sure to download the paper–it’s open access.)

Will Ratcliff responds:

Well, I don’t buy it that yeast are multicellular in nature. Certainly some yeast in nature form small clusters (like strain RM11), but as far as I know, these are the exception to the rule. Most strains isolated in nature are unicellular, or at most, flocculating (which I still count as unicellular but social). [CZ: “Flocculating” refers to the clumps that unrelated yeast cells form when they starve.]

In our case, we’re working with strain Y55, a yeast that is is not highly lab adapted (we know this because it still sporulates at nearly 100% efficiency. Sporulation efficiency is typically lost after long periods of lab adaptation.) We’ve known through knockout mutation libraries that breaking the ability to release daughter cells after mitosis gives you a snowflake-shaped cluster. We’re not claiming that we’re the first to observe this phenotype. What we claim is that we’re the first to systematically examine the transition to multicellularity. We see the evolution of clusters from single cells as a result of selection acting on de novo mutations, we see a shift to between-cluster selection, and we see subsequent adaptation occurring cluster-level traits (like division of labor).

Our yeast are not utilizing ‘latent’ multicellular genes and reverting back to their wild state. The initial evolution of snowflake yeast is the result of mutations that break the normal mitotic reproductive process, preventing daughter cells from being released as they normally would when division is complete. Again, we know from knockout libraries that this phenotype can be a consequence of many different mutations. This is a loss of function, not a gain of function. You could probably evolve a similar phenotype in nearly any microbe (other than bacteria, binary fission is a fundamentally different process). We find that it is actually much harder to go back to unicellularity once snowflake yeast have evolved, because there are many more ways to break something via mutation than fix it. The amazing thing we see is that we rapidly see adaptations to this adaptation. If we select for more rapid settling, snowflake yeast evolve to delay reproduction until the parent is larger, allowing it settle more quickly. We see the evolution of higher rates of apoptosis as a way to regulate the size and number of propagules produced. We show that the transition to multicellularity in yeast is surprisingly easy, and have no reason to suspect it would be any harder in other microbes with a reproductive process similar to yeast.