© William C. Ratcliff 2013 Snowflake yeast after 14 days of selection (source).   Update: we now ship a unicellular strain that evolves multicellularity much faster (days instead of weeks). The genetics are simple, it has one functional and one non-functional copy of the transcription factor ACE2. If a gene conversion event occurs that causes a cell to lose the functional copy (termed ‘gene conversion’), then it begins to grow as a snowflake. The evolution of multicellularity was one of a few events in the history of life that allowed for increases in biological complexity. All known multicellular organisms evolved from single-celled ancestors, most notably in the animals, land plants, and fungi. Take a moment to imagine the world without multicellular organisms. The most vibrant tropical rainforest would be reduced to little more than a barren open landscape encrusted with a slimy layer of photosynthetic bacteria and algae. Clearly, the evolution of multicellularity radically changed the structure of life on our planet. The evolution of multicellularity resulted in radical changes in organismal size and complexity. Single cells, which for billions of years were organisms in their own right, give up this autonomy and become parts of new, more complex, higher-level organisms. These evolved cellular differentiation, allowing the multicellular organism to do things that were never possible before. And perhaps most remarkably of all, multicellularity has evolved not just once, or twice, but more than 25 times in different lineages. All known transitions to multicellularity are ancient. Even the most recent transitions (brown algae, such as kelp, and the volvocine algae) occurred more than 200 million years ago. Because of their ancient origin, early multicellular forms have largely been lost to extinction, making it hard for scientists to study the first steps in the evolution of multicellularity. Until now. Ratcliff et al. (2012) carried out a novel experiment to evolve simple multicellularity in the lab, starting with single-celled microbes (see the video abstract). The authors created an environment that favored strains that evolve to form clusters of cells (the first step in the transition to multicellularity) by subjecting Baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) to daily selection for fast settling through liquid medium. Within just a few weeks, yeast that formed snowflake-shaped clusters of cells (left) evolved and displaced their single-celled ancestors. “Snowflake” yeast display several hallmarks of multicellularity, including juvenile and adult life stages, determinate growth, and a rudimentary cellular division of labor utilizing programmed cell death (left). In this experiment, students will repeat the experiment of Ratcliff et al. (2012), evolving snowflake yeast from unicellular ancestors. In addition, they will examine cluster-level adaptation by selecting for either faster or slower settling in a snowflake yeast. Optional: you may have your students complete these pre and post tests online. This assessment will provide data on this lab’s efficacy, and will help us improve it. These quizzes are quick and anonymous.   Lab 1: Experimental evolution Evolve your own multicellular yeast Time: 30 minutes a day for 1-3 weeks Download Teacher’s manual   Download Student handout     Download Introductory powerpoint     Snowflake yeast after 60 days of selection (source) In the above photos, green cells are undergoing programmed cell death (apoptosis), red cells are dead, and orange cells have recently died from apoptosis. Time-lapse video of snowflake yeast reproducing.