We do not know how or why multicellularity evolved. We used the budding yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, to ask whether nutrients that must be digested extracellularly select for the evolution of undifferentiated multicellularity. Because yeast use invertase to hydrolyze sucrose extracellularly and import the resulting monosaccharides, single cells cannot grow at low cell and sucrose concentrations. Three engineered strategies overcame this problem: forming multicellular clumps, importing sucrose before hydrolysis, and increasing invertase expression. We evolved populations in low sucrose to ask which strategy they would adopt. Of 12 successful clones, 11 formed multicellular clumps through incomplete cell separation, 10 increased invertase expression, none imported sucrose, and 11 increased hexose transporter expression, a strategy we had not engineered. Identifying causal mutations revealed genes and pathways, which frequently contributed to the evolved phenotype. Our study shows that combining rational design with experimental evolution can help evaluate hypotheses about evolutionary strategies.
Life first appeared on Earth more than 3 billion years ago in the form of single-celled microorganisms. The diverse array of complex life forms that we see today evolved from these humble beginnings, but it is not clear what triggered the evolution of multicellular organisms from single cells.
One of the simplest multicellular eukaryotes is the yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae—a fungus that has been used for centuries in baking and brewing and, more recently, as a model organism in molecular biology. Yeast cells feed on sugar (sucrose), but are unable to absorb it directly from their surroundings. Instead they secrete an enzyme called invertase, which breaks down the sucrose into simpler components that cells can take up with the help of sugar transporters.
However, single yeast cells living in a low-sucrose environment face a problem: most of the simple sugars that they produce diffuse out of reach. To overcome this difficulty, the cells could form multicellular clumps, which would enable each cell to consume the sugars that drift away from its neighbours. Alternatively, the cells could increase their production of invertase, or they could begin to take up sucrose directly.
Using genetic engineering, Koschwanez et al. produced three strains of yeast, each with one of these traits, and confirmed that all three strategies do indeed help fungi to grow in low sucrose. But could any of these traits evolve spontaneously? To test this possibility, Koschwanez et al. introduced wild-type yeast cells into a low-sucrose environment and studied any populations of cells that managed to survive. Of 12 that did, 11 had acquired the ability to form multicellular clumps, while 10 had increased their expression of invertase. Surprisingly, none had evolved the ability to import sucrose. However, 11 of the populations that survived also displayed an adaptation that the researchers had not predicted beforehand: they all expressed higher levels of the sugar transporters that take up sucrose breakdown products.
The work of Koschwanez et al. suggests that the benefits of being able to share invertase and, therefore, simple sugars, may have driven the evolution of multicellularity in ancient organisms. Moreover, their use of rational design (engineered mutations) combined with experimental evolution (allowing colonies to grow under selection pressure and studying the strategies that they adopt) offers a new approach to studying evolution in the lab.