van Gestel, Jordi and Andreas Wagner

The repeated evolution of multicellularity led to a wide diversity of organisms, many of which are sessile, including land plants, many fungi, and colonial animals. Sessile organisms adhere to a surface for most of their lives, where they grow and compete for space. Despite the prevalence of surface-associated multicellularity, little is known about its evolutionary origin. Here, we introduce a novel theoretical approach, based on spatial lineage tracking of cells, to study this origin. We show that multicellularity can rapidly evolve from two widespread cellular properties: cell adhesion and the regulatory control of adhesion. By evolving adhesion, cells attach to a surface, where they spontaneously give rise to primitive cell collectives that differ in size, life span, and mode of propagation. Selection in favor of large collectives increases the fraction of adhesive cells until a surface becomes fully occupied. Through kin recognition, collectives then evolve a central-peripheral polarity in cell adhesion that supports a division of labor between cells and profoundly impacts growth. Despite this spatial organization, nascent collectives remain cryptic, lack well-defined boundaries, and would require experimental lineage tracking technologies for their identification. Our results suggest that cryptic multicellularity could readily evolve and originate well before multicellular individuals become morphologically evident.