The evolution of multicellularity, the separation of germline cells from sterile somatic cells, and the generation of a male-female dichotomy are certainly among the greatest innovations of eukaryotes. Remarkably, phylogenetic analysis suggests that the shift from simple to complex, differentiated multicellularity was not a unique progression in the evolution of life, but in fact a quite frequent event. The spheroidal green alga Volvox and its close relatives, the volvocine algae, span the full range of organizational complexity, from unicellular and colonial genera to multicellular genera with a full germ-soma division of labor and male-female dichotomy; thus, these algae are ideal model organisms for addressing fundamental issues related to the transition to multicellularity and for discovering universal rules that characterize this transition. Of all living species, Volvox carteri represents the simplest version of an immortal germline producing specialized somatic cells. This cellular specialization involved the emergence of mortality and the production of the first dead ancestors in the evolution of this lineage. Volvocine algae therefore exemplify the evolution of cellular cooperation from cellular autonomy. They also serve as a prime example of the evolution of complex traits by a few successive, small steps. Thus, we learn from volvocine algae that the evolutionary transition to complex, multicellular life is probably much easier to achieve than is commonly believed.
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