At some point in Earth’s history, the first living cell was produced from what’s popularly called a “witches brew” of chemicals in the water of our newborn planet. Then the next big leap was when those first single-cell organisms became multicellular, allowing for specialization of function and the beginnings of the diversity we know today. We’re not sure how that happened, or exactly what triggered it, so for decades chemists have searched for the answer with a wide range of experiments.
Mostly, when we think about evolution, we think in terms of major changes occurring over millions of years, if not billions. Especially a transition as pivotal as from single cells to multicellularity. But now a team of scientists at the University of Minnesota has encouraged cells of simple brewer’s yeast to evolve into multicellular clusters within just two months!
How? By creating conditions that forced it to evolve. Their process is described in a good Wired article here, but essentially the researchers created an environment in which yeast cells that clustered together were given an advantage in reproducing—so that’s exactly what the cells did. Within two months they’d formed permanent multicellular clusters of cells, featuring specialized components and ready to diversify.
The lead researchers suggest that, when we want to produce specialized organisms for industry or medicine, complex genetic engineering might be far more complicated than necessary. We might be better off shaping evolution by doing the job that natural selection has done, but doing it faster. Farmers have done something similar for centuries breeding animals and crops.
To my way of thinking, that method seems a lot less likely to produce unintentional genetic creations that might prove unwelcome or even dangerous.
Sometimes simple is better.