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Disparities in the evolution of multicellularity

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Multicellularity is widely regarded as one of the most formative steps in evolutionary history and it has been made by many scions in the Tree of Life, however, the consequences have not been equal for all of the lineages that have made this transition. Most attention has been lavished on attempts to understand how animal bodyplans emerged from unicellular ancestors, apparently demonstrating not only that this was achieved very quickly, but that the extremes of disparity were achieved early. Causal hypotheses range from protein, gene regulatory, and stochastic evolution. We have attempted to test these hypotheses of pattern and process by establishing an empirical morphospace for the animal kingdom, the results of which demonstrate that while many clades exhibit maximal initial disparity, arthropods, chordates, annelids and mollusks have continued to explore and expand the limits of morphospace throughout the Phanerozoic, doubling the envelope of disparity occupied during the early phase of animal evolution. The morphological distances between phyla mirror differences in complexity, body size, and species-level diversity across the animal kingdom. A parallel analysis of the plant kingdom exhibits a pattern of increasing variance throughout evolutionary history. In testing hypotheses of causality, we find a strong correlation between increasing morphological disparity and genome size as well as disparities in microRNA repertoire, our proxy for gene regulation indicating potential mechanisms underpinning the emergence of multicellular organismal complexity in both the animal and plant kingdoms.

This talk is part of the Department of Earth Sciences Seminars (downtown) series.

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