The evolution of metazoans from their unicellular ancestors was one of the most important events in the history of life. However, the cellular and genetic changes that ultimately led to the evolution of multicellularity are not known. In this study, we describe an aggregative multicellular stage in the protist Capsaspora owczarzaki, a close unicellular relative of metazoans. Remarkably, transition to the aggregative stage is associated with significant upregulation of orthologs of genes known to establish multicellularity and tissue architecture in metazoans. We further observe transitions in regulated alternative splicing during the C. owczarzaki life cycle, including the deployment of an exon network associated with signaling, a feature of splicing regulation so far only observed in metazoans. Our results reveal the existence of a highly regulated aggregative stage in C. owczarzaki and further suggest that features of aggregative behavior in an ancestral protist may had been co-opted to develop some multicellular properties currently seen in metazoans.
When living things made from many cells evolved from single-celled ancestors, it was a breakthrough in the history of life—and one that has occurred more than once. In fact, multicellular life has evolved independently at least 25 times, in groups as diverse as animals, fungi, plants, slime molds and seaweeds. There are broadly two ways to become multicellular. The most complex multicellular species, such as animals, will replicate a single cell, over and over, without separating the resultant cells. However, in species that are only occasionally multicellular, free-living cells tend instead to join together in one mass of many cells.
Evolution is constrained by its raw materials; so looking at the living relatives of a given species, or group, can lead to a better understanding of its evolution because its relatives contain clues about its ancestors. To gain insights into how animal multicellular life might have began; Sebé-Pedrós et al. studied the life cycle of the amoeboid organism Capsaspora owczarzaki. Found within the bodies of freshwater snails, this single-celled amoeba is a close relative of multicellular animals and could resemble one of their earliest ancestors.
At certain stages of the life cycle Sebé-Pedrós et al. noticed that individual amoebae gathered together to form a multicellular mass—something that had not been seen before in such a close relative of the animals. Moreover, the genes that ‘switched on’ when the amoebae began to aggregate are also found in animals; where, together with other genes, they control development and the formation of tissues. Sebé-Pedrós et al. suggest that the first multicellular animals could have recycled the genes that control the aggregation of single-celled species: in other words, genes that once controlled the changes that happen at different times in a life cycle, now control the changes that develop between different tissues at the same time.
Sebé-Pedrós et al. also observed that alternative splicing—a process that allows different proteins to be made from a single gene—occurs via two different mechanisms during the life cycle of Capsaspora. Most of the time Capsaspora employs a form of alternative splicing that is often seen in plants and fungi, and only rarely in animals; for the rest of the time it uses a form of alternative splicing similar to that used by animal cells.
The evolution of complex alternative splicing mechanisms is a hallmark feature of multicellular animals. The exploitation of two major forms of alternative splicing in Capsaspora could thus reflect an important transition during evolution that resulted in an increased diversity of proteins and in more complex gene regulation. Such a transition may ultimately have paved the way for the increased specialization of cell types seen in animals.
This glimpse into the possible transitions in gene regulation that contributed to the birth of multicellular animals indicates that the single-celled ancestor of the animals was likely more complex than previously thought. Future analyses of the animals’ close relatives may further improve our understanding of how single-celled organisms became multicellular animals.