Reconstructing alternative pathways to complex multicellularity in animals and fungi from current genetic diversity


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An international team of researchers with a central contribution from researchers from the Department of Biological Physics of Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) has unveiled the evolutionary origins of animals and fungi.

The results, published in the journal Naturedemonstrate how genomic data and powerful computational methods allow scientists to answer fundamental questions in evolutionary biology that were previously unreachable.

Scientists have always been curious about the evolutionary history of animals and fungi: these two groups of complex multicellular organisms are at first sight totally different, but in fact they are cousins ​​on the Tree of Life. Animals and fungi are members of the same extended family, called the eukaryotic supergroup, and are much more closely related to each other than to plants. Understanding how such complex but contrasting groups evolved within the same eukaryotic supergroup has been difficult due to the lack of a detailed fossil record from when the two groups diverged.

“In order to solve this evolutionary puzzle, we first had to generate genomic data from the single-celled groups that branch between animals and fungi in the tree of life,” said lead researcher Iñaki Ruiz-Trillo. and professor of evolutionary biology at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology in Barcelona and last author of the article.

Instead of relying on fossils, the authors pieced together the evolution of the two groups from genetic information found in the genomes of fungi and animals living today. By combining the genomic data produced for these single-celled groups with the genomic data of several species of animals and fungi, the researchers reconstructed the trajectory of genetic changes that led to the origin of these two eukaryotic groups using sophisticated computer models of genetic change.

“Methodologically, there are two factors that have a huge impact in the field of evolutionary biology. The first is that currently it is much easier to produce genomic data for any organism. The second is that nowadays our computers can run a lot of the more complex evolutionary models to analyze this data,” commented Gergely J Szöllősi, Principal Investigator at the ERC GENECLOCKS research group and Assistant Professor at the Department of Biological Physics at ELTE and co- author of the article.

The overall picture that has emerged from the analyzes is that the genomic differences we see today between modern animals and fungi result from gradual changes that began early in evolution. The authors’ findings indicate that this process began immediately after the two groups’ ancestors diverged more than a billion years ago.

“This surprised us, because we expected most of the changes to occur specifically in conjunction with the origin of animals and fungi. What we saw instead is the opposite, most of the changes in the genetic content occurred before the origin of the two groups,” said Eduard Ocaña. -Pallarès, postdoctoral researcher at ELTE University and first author.

According to the researchers, the lineage that led to the animals began to accumulate genes that would later become essential for animal multicellularity. In contrast, the lineage leading to modern fungi suffered more genetic loss and shifted its genetic content towards metabolic functions. This change has allowed fungi to adapt and survive in a bewildering variety of environments.

“Moving from Barcelona to Hungary and joining the ERC GENECLOCKS research group at ELTE was the best decision I could have made from a professional point of view. During my PhD in Barcelona, ​​we generated a lot of genomic data, but all this data is only meaningful if you analyze it with the proper methods.I decided to pursue this research in Gergely’s group as I was aware that they were developing advanced software for reconstruction of the content of ancestral genes. This decision was crucial for the success of the project,” concluded Eduard Ocaña-Pallarès, postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biological Physics at ELTE.

“This work is an excellent example of how worldwide collaboration can boost science and lead to research excellence,” adds Gergely J Szöllősi.

Weird and wonderful mushroom world shaped by evolutionary explosions, study finds

More information:
Iñaki Ruiz-Trillo, Divergent genomic trajectories predate the origin of animals and fungi, Nature (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-05110-4.

Provided by Eötvös Loránd University

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