A hydrodynamics approach to the evolution of multicellularity: Flagellar motility and germ-soma differentiation in volvocalean green algae

Cristian A. Solari, John O. Kessler, Richard E. Michod

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

49 Scopus citations


During the unicellular-multicellular transition, there are opportunities and costs associated with larger size. We argue that germ-soma separation evolved to counteract the increasing costs and requirements of larger multicellular colonies. Volvocalean green algae are uniquely suited for studying this transition because they range from unicells to multicellular individuals with germ-soma separation. Because Volvocales need flagellar beating for movement and to avoid sinking, their motility is modeled and analyzed experimentally using standard hydrodynamics. We provide comparative hydrodynamic data of an algal lineage composed of organisms of different sizes and degrees of complexity. In agreement with and extending the insights of Koufopanou, we show that the increase in cell specialization as colony size increases can be explained in terms of increased motility requirements. First, as colony size increases, soma must evolve, the somatic-to-reproductive cell ratio increasing to keep colonies buoyant and motile. Second, increased germ-soma specialization in larger colonies increases motility capabilities because internalization of nonflagellated germ cells decreases colony drag. Third, our analysis yields a limiting maximum size of the volvocalean spheroid that agrees with the sizes of the largest species known. Finally, the different colony designs in Volvocales reflect the trade-offs between reproduction, colony size, and motility.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)537-554
Number of pages18
JournalAmerican Naturalist
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2006



  • Body size
  • Cell specialization
  • Cost of reproduction
  • Hydrodynamics
  • Motility
  • Volvox

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics

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