Cracking the Whip
In the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of Arizona and Brown University explain how flagella allow these algae to get the energy they need to multiply and create colonies - the critical secret that allowed them to evolve into multicellular organisms.
"This is the first evidence that flagella not only help organisms move, but can help them feed at a rate that allowed them to evolve to a larger size," said Thomas Powers, an assistant professor of engineering at Brown who studies microorganisms in motion. "This is a critical piece of information, since understanding how one-celled life forms evolve into many-celled ones is a fundamental question in biology."
The team studied a group of green algae known as the volvocines, organisms so common they can be found in puddles of rain. Biologists study the group, which runs the gamut from single-celled organisms to teeming colonies, to understand how cells differentiate and multiply. But how did the volvocines jump from solo cells to Volvox, a colony of as many as 50,000 cells?
It's a puzzler of a question, given the size of a Volvox colony and the laws of physics. Bigger organisms need more energy - a lot more energy - to survive. And Volvox is the largest colony that the volvocines make, a giant ball of flagella-waving body guards protecting a small cluster of reproductive cells. When the radius of the spherical colony increases by a factor of two, the area of the sphere increases by a factor of four. So it follows that the energy demands for Volvox would quadruple, too, as it grows.
Yet microscopic organisms such as volvocines get nutrients through diffusion, a process by which bits of food bump into the cell and pass through the cell membrane. Doubling the radius of the colony doubles - not quadruples - the colony's food intake rate. So a large organism such as a Volvox colony shouldn't survive because it would demand more energy than passive feeding could supply, a conundrum that researchers refer to as the "bottleneck problem."
The research team had a hunch that flagella somehow played a role in bringing in nutrients needed for Volvox to grow and survive. Raymond Goldstein, a professor of physics and applied mathematics at the University of Arizona, gathered together a group of scientists with expertise in physics, mathematics, engineering and biology to work on the problem.