The history of life is punctuated by evolutionary transitions which engender emergence of new levels of biological organization that involves selection acting at increasingly complex ensembles of biological entities. Major evolutionary transitions include the origin of prokaryotic and then eukaryotic cells, multicellular organisms and eusocial animals. All or nearly all cellular life forms are hosts to diverse selfish genetic elements with various levels of autonomy including plasmids, transposons and viruses. I present evidence that, at least up to and including the origin of multicellularity, evolutionary transitions are driven by the coevolution of hosts with these genetic parasites along with sharing of 'public goods'. Selfish elements drive evolutionary transitions at two distinct levels. First, mathematical modelling of evolutionary processes, such as evolution of primitive replicator populations or unicellular organisms, indicates that only increasing organizational complexity, e.g. emergence of multicellular aggregates, can prevent the collapse of the host-parasite system under the pressure of parasites. Second, comparative genomic analysis reveals numerous cases of recruitment of genes with essential functions in cellular life forms, including those that enable evolutionary transitions.This article is part of the themed issue 'The major synthetic evolutionary transitions'.
Keywords: antivirus defence; evolutionary transitions; host–parasite coevolution; mobile genetic elements; parasites; viruses.
© 2016 The Authors.