Here’s How Better Communication Created Modern Life

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


Cells are amazing—and amazingly complex—little micro-factories. So complex, in fact, that it took longer for eukaryotic cells to evolve—a billion years, at least—than it did for the first multicellular creature to evolve into you and me—around 700 million years.

So how did single-celled critters first join together, anyway? The Washington Post reports today on a new discovery that might explain the ancient origin of multicellular organisms that eventually became Homo sapiens. It comes from a team of researchers at the University of Oregon. One of the co-authors is Ken Prehoda, a biochemist:

The discovery was made thanks to choanoflagellates — tiny balloon-shaped creatures that are our closest living unicellular cousins….They’re single-celled organisms, but they occasionally work together in groups, swimming into a cluster with their flagella (tails) pointing outward like the rays of a sun. At the most basic level, this coordination helps the choanoflagellates eat certain kinds of food. But it’s also an example of individual cells coming together to work as one unit, kind of like — hey! — a multi-cellular organism.

Prehoda and his colleagues began to look into what genes could be responsible for allowing the choanoflagellates to work together. “We were expecting many genes to be involved, working together in certain ways, because [the jump to multi-cellularity] seems like a really difficult thing to do,” he said.

But it turned out that only one was needed: A single mutation that repurposed a certain type of protein [so that it] could communicate with and bind to other proteins, a useful skill for cells that have decided to trade the rugged individualist life for the collaboration of a group….Every example of cells collaborating that has arisen since — from the trilobites of 500 million years ago to the dinosaurs, woolly mammoths and you — probably relied on it or some other similar mutation.

One little mutation, and single cells in a swarm could communicate slightly better than before. This presumably allowed better coordination, and thus more access to food and a better chance of survival. Or, if you prefer your science a little less comprehensible: “A molecular complex scaffolded by the GK protein-interaction domain (GKPID) mediates spindle orientation in diverse animal taxa by linking microtubule motor proteins to a marker protein on the cell cortex localized by external cues….The evolution of GKPID’s capacity to bind the cortical marker protein can be recapitulated by reintroducing a single historical substitution into the reconstructed ancestral GKPID.”

Thanks, GKPID! You don’t get all the credit (or blame) for the evolution of us humans, but without your willingness to try new things and share your feelings with your fellow proteins, we probably wouldn’t be around today.

FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2020 demands.

payment methods

FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2020 demands.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate