We hypothesize that aspects of animal multicellularity originated before the divergence of metazoans from fungi and social amoebae. Polarized epithelial tissues are a defining feature of metazoans and contribute to the diversity of animal body plans. The recent finding of a polarized epithelium in the non-metazoan social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum demonstrates that epithelial tissue is not a unique feature of metazoans, and challenges the traditional paradigm that multicellularity evolved independently in social amoebae and metazoans. An alternative view, presented here, is that the common ancestor of social amoebae, fungi, and animals spent a portion of its life cycle in a multicellular state and possessed molecular machinery necessary for forming an epithelial tissue. Some descendants of this ancestor retained multicellularity, while others reverted to unicellularity. This hypothesis makes testable predictions regarding tissue organization in close relatives of metazoans and provides a novel conceptual framework for studies of early animal evolution.
Copyright © 2012 WILEY Periodicals, Inc.