On the transfer of fitness from the cell to the multicellular organism

Biology and Philosophy 20 (5):967-987 (2005)
The fitness of any evolutionary unit can be understood in terms of its two basic components: fecundity (reproduction) and viability (survival). Trade-offs between these fitness components drive the evolution of life-history traits in extant multicellular organisms. We argue that these trade-offs gain special significance during the transition from unicellular to multicellular life. In particular, the evolution of germ–soma specialization and the emergence of individuality at the cell group (or organism) level are also consequences of trade-offs between the two basic fitness components, or so we argue using a multilevel selection approach. During the origin of multicellularity, we study how the group trade-offs between viability and fecundity are initially determined by the cell level trade-offs, but as the transition proceeds, the fitness trade-offs at the group level depart from those at the cell level. We predict that these trade-offs begin with concave curvature in single-celled organisms but become increasingly convex as group size increases in multicellular organisms. We argue that the increasingly convex curvature of the trade-off function is driven by the cost of reproduction which increases as group size increases. We consider aspects of the biology of the volvocine green algae – which contain both unicellular and multicellular members – to illustrate the principles and conclusions discussed
Keywords Body size  Cost of reproduction  Evolutionary transitions  Fitness  Germ–soma specialization  Individuality  Life-history evolution  Multi-level selection  Multicellularity  Volvox
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DOI 10.1007/s10539-005-9018-2
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