evolution of multicellularity

A friend of mine has found this interesting essay in Nature entitled “Unity from conflict” that deals with the evolutionary mechanisms that allowed the emergence of multicellular organisms.
The problem of how multicellular organisms came about from single cells is quite intriguing. I heard from Lewis Wolpert that this is probably the most important of the seven transitions in evolution as described by Maynard Smith and Szathm√°ry in their book. In retrospect it is clear that such a transition is possible (since we are here) but, why did it happen?

Paul Rainey (whom I suspect might be a microbiologist) seems to be suggesting that with the right mutation rate (or right mutation bias) multi-cellularity should be possible. Organisms such as myxobacteria seem to be able to alter their mutation rate in response to stress in the environment so I guess that evolution fiddling with the right mutation rate is not unreasonable. In any case I’d rather see it from the point of view of my friend, that is, a harsh environment does enforce cooperation in a way that makes cheating very costly. In reality I would imagine that other factors such as the immune system (that in a way can be though of a police on the lookout for cheaters) or the fact that cells in a multicellular organism share the same DNA could also help explain why there is not that much cheating in our bodies.

This article is quite interesting for any one interested in cancer. At the end of the day a cancer cell is a normal cell that due to genetic or epigenetic reasons stops cooperating. Once they evolve the means to avoid the immune system and other mechanisms designed to maintain homeostasis I would imagine that the life expectancy of a tumour cell should be rather short (necrosis, running behind in the evolution game or due to a poor microenvironment) and thus crime might not pay, at least in the mid/long term (which still would leave room for a benefit in the short term that would be enough to kick-start somatic evolution).

It should be possible using a computational model to demonstrate that an aggressive microenvironment would favour cell cooperation. A mutlicellular organism in which individual cells suffer when exposed to the exterior would evolve a morphology that would minimise the interface with the outside world. it would be also quite likely that a niche of stem cells would evolve to be in charge of generating the cells in this interface that would be in need of constant repair and maintenance. That is what happens in places in which the environment is hostile to cells like the colon or the skin. If cells in the model are allowed to cheat (by means of mutations leading cells to try to avoid being part of the interface if that is their role) that would presumably affect negatively the overall fitness of the organism. However I am not sure that this would rule out other explanations for the evolution of multicellular organisms.

Acceptance of evolution around the world

National Geographic has published this chart that depicts the public acceptance of Darwinian evolution in 34 countries around the world. As a Spaniard I am happy to see that evolution is widely accepted in my country, with a higher acceptance rate than even in Germany where I currently live although not as high as in Scandinavian countries or in the UK (the birthplace of Darwin). In the U.S. less than half of the population (if the results of the poll can be extrapolated) have at least some reservations towards evolution although the country (of all those polled) that seems most hostile to it seems to be Turkey.

The laws of biology

The side effect of having spending so much time traveling these last months is that I have this stack of Nature and Science journals (I switched from the former to the latter a month ago to see the difference) which I am going through quite slowly.

In a Nature from the 7th of February there is an interesting essay about the clash of cultures between biologists and physicists working on biological topics written by a physicist from MIT (good to know where the bias will come from). Physicists have a long tradition of studying an (increasing) range of phenomena and producing theoretical models that characterise as many of those phenomena as possible. These are what are called the laws of physics. The question is if biology can have also models and laws that represent biological phenomena.

Although there are some (fairly generic and neat) biological laws (thing of Darwin’s evolution and Mendel’s genetics) most biologists seem to be more interested in fact collecting than in putting the available information in the form of theoretical models and universal laws of biology. The physicists (and mathematicians) coming to the field have not much knowledge in how the facts are collected (which it is easy to imagine as the source of many frustrations) but a deep interest in integrating those facts into models (especially when it involves using their favourite tools such as phase transitions, fractal analysis, power laws or networks). It remains to be seen if (in the view of the author) these general laws are possible at all and if (not my view but at least my question) the tools that were useful in physics will be that useful in biology (which does not mean they could at the very least, constitute a good starting point).

Back from Scotland and Gatenby’s talk

I am back from sunny Scotland in sunny Saxony. Of the remaining speakers in Dundee, the one whose talk I was looking for the most was the one from Robert Gatenby, Arizona University (as with Vito Quaranta, a life scientist).

I know the work of Gatenby because he is one of the few researchers involved in using evolutionary game theory (although not of the most conventional, fitness-and-payoff-table kind) to study cancer evolution. Specifically he is working on how acidity due to glycolysis (the anaerobic metabolism that constitutes and advantage for tumour cells that lack oxygen due to the distance to a blood vessel) is a necessary step in the evolution towards cancer. The so called Warburg effect is the result of a well known biochemical mechanism but, what is the evolutionary advantage?

As he has shown in other papers, the advantage for glycolytic cells is that the poison the environment of other cells so they face less competition. They also degrade the connective tissue and thus increase the motility of cells, which is a required step for a tumour to become invasive. From my point of view it is interesting that he seemed to imply that this acidification of the microenvironment is not only a facilitator for cancer but a necessary step. I guess that Hanahan and Weinberg could include this in the section for mechanisms for invasion and metastasis.

From the therapeutic point of view, his research suggests that either alkalising the microenvironment (to counteract the progressive acidification resulting from the glycolytic metabolism) or making it even more acidic by reducing the pH in the blood (and thus contributing to self poisoning of glycolytic cells) would be something worth trying.