Origins of multicellular complexity: Volvox and the volvocine algae

Mol Ecol. 2016 Mar;25(6):1213-23. doi: 10.1111/mec.13551. Epub 2016 Mar 1.


The collection of evolutionary transformations known as the 'major transitions' or 'transitions in individuality' resulted in changes in the units of evolution and in the hierarchical structure of cellular life. Volvox and related algae have become an important model system for the major transition from unicellular to multicellular life, which touches on several fundamental questions in evolutionary biology. The Third International Volvox Conference was held at the University of Cambridge in August 2015 to discuss recent advances in the biology and evolution of this group of algae. Here, I highlight the benefits of integrating phylogenetic comparative methods and experimental evolution with detailed studies of developmental genetics in a model system with substantial genetic and genomic resources. I summarize recent research on Volvox and its relatives and comment on its implications for the genomic changes underlying major evolutionary transitions, evolution and development of complex traits, evolution of sex and sexes, evolution of cellular differentiation and the biophysics of motility. Finally, I outline challenges and suggest future directions for research into the biology and evolution of the volvocine algae.

Keywords: Volvox; algae; biophysics; evolution of sex; major transitions; multicellularity.

Publication types

  • News
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution*
  • Cell Differentiation
  • Cell Movement
  • Chlamydomonas / genetics
  • Chlamydomonas / physiology
  • Congresses as Topic
  • Phylogeny
  • Volvox / genetics*
  • Volvox / physiology*