Scientists have long wondered how single-celled organisms evolved into the multicellular animals we see today, but addressing this has only recently become possible by comparing complete genome sequences of diverse organisms. Such a study that included newly discovered and known species from Hawai‘i has provided insights into the evolution of multi-cellularity in the animals.

Recently published research from an international team that included Dr. Stuart Donachie in the Department of Microbiology, and Advanced Studies in Genomics, Proteomics and Bioinformatics (ASGPB) at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, investigated how the genomes of early animals changed before multi-celled animals appeared. Organisms cultivated in Hawaiʻi were part of the study. One of these is the sole member of a new genus and species, Chromosphaera perkinsii, named after now retired Assistant Vice President for Research and Graduate Education, and UH Mānoa Assistant Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education, Dr. Frank Perkins, in recognition of his contributions to the study of microbial eukaryotes. The project's findings included an increase in gene diversity, changes in how genes were organized within genomes, and an increase in genome size in the early ancestors of animals. Particular types of genes became more abundant too, including those involved in the extracellular matrix and cell adhesion, which enable cells to bind to each other and ultimately create complex structures.

This study could only be possible with the high-throughout DNA sequencing methods available today. However, it also demonstrates the importance of basic microbiological work, such as field studies that cultivate microbes that are new to science. Moreover, that two of the ten cultures used in the work were isolated in Hawaiʻi underscores the novelty that exists among microbes here, and the need for us to continue to explore this and other facets of microbial diversity in Hawaiʻi.

The study was published in eLife. The research was led by Dr. Iñaki Ruiz-Trillo at Institut de Biologia Evolutiva CSIC–UPF, and Dept. Genètica, Universitat de Barcelona.

Citation: Grau-Bové X, Torruella G, Donachie S, Suga H, Leonard G, Richards TA, Ruiz-Trillo I (2017) Dynamics of genomic innovation in the unicellular ancestry of animals | eLife 2017; 6:e26036. DOI: 10.7554/eLife.26036.001

Photo credit: Dennis Kunkel/Mark Chaplin