Evolution of multicellularity by collective integration of spatial information

  1. Enrico Sandro Colizzi  Is a corresponding author
  2. Renske MA Vroomans
  3. Roeland MH Merks
  1. Leiden University, Netherlands
  2. University of Amsterdam, Netherlands


At the origin of multicellularity, cells may have evolved aggregation in response to predation, for functional specialisation or to allow large-scale integration of environmental cues. These group-level properties emerged from the interactions between cells in a group, and determined the selection pressures experienced by these cells. We investigate the evolution of multicellularity with an evolutionary model where cells search for resources by chemotaxis in a shallow, noisy gradient. Cells can evolve their adhesion to others in a periodically changing environment, where a cell's fitness solely depends on its distance from the gradient source. We show that multicellular aggregates evolve because they perform chemotaxis more efficiently than single cells. Only when the environment changes too frequently, a unicellular state evolves which relies on cell dispersal. Both strategies prevent the invasion of the other through interference competition, creating evolutionary bi-stability. Therefore, collective behaviour can be an emergent selective driver for undifferentiated multicellularity.

Data availability

All data in this study are produced with custom-made software. The source code is freely available at https://github.com/escolizzi/Cell_Evolution_stickymoves

Article and author information

Author details

  1. Enrico Sandro Colizzi

    Mathematical Institute, Leiden University, Leiden, Netherlands
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0003-1709-4499
  2. Renske MA Vroomans

    Institute of Informatics, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Netherlands
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-1353-797X
  3. Roeland MH Merks

    Mathematical Institute and Institute of Biology,, Leiden University, Leiden, Netherlands
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.


Nederlands Wetenschap Agenda (StartImpuls)

  • Enrico Sandro Colizzi

Nederlands Wetenschap Agenda (StartImpuls)

  • Renske MA Vroomans

NWO/ENW-VICI (865.17.004)

  • Roeland MH Merks

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.

Reviewing Editor

  1. Raymond E Goldstein, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom

Publication history

  1. Received: February 25, 2020
  2. Accepted: October 13, 2020
  3. Accepted Manuscript published: October 16, 2020 (version 1)
  4. Version of Record published: November 9, 2020 (version 2)


© 2020, Colizzi et al.

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


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  1. Enrico Sandro Colizzi
  2. Renske MA Vroomans
  3. Roeland MH Merks
Evolution of multicellularity by collective integration of spatial information
eLife 9:e56349.

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