How differentiation between cell types evolved is a fundamental question in biology, but few studies have explored single-gene phenotypes that mediate first steps towards division of labour with selective advantage for groups of cells. Here, we show that differential expression of the FLO11 gene produces stable fractions of Flo11+ and Flo11− cells in clonal Saccharomyces cerevisiae biofilm colonies on medium with intermediate viscosity. Differentiated Flo11+/− colonies, consisting of adhesive and non-adhesive cells, obtain a fourfold growth advantage over undifferentiated colonies by overgrowing glucose resources before depleting them, rather than depleting them while they grow as undifferentiated Flo11− colonies do. Flo11+/− colonies maintain their structure and differentiated state by switching non-adhesive cells to adhesive cells with predictable probability. Mixtures of Flo11+ and Flo11− cells from mutant strains that are unable to use this epigenetic switch mechanism produced neither integrated colonies nor growth advantages, so the condition-dependent selective advantages of differentiated FLO11 expression can only be reaped by clone-mate cells. Our results show that selection for cell differentiation in clonal eukaryotes can evolve before the establishment of obligate undifferentiated multicellularity, and without necessarily leading to more advanced organizational complexity.
Electronic supplementary material is available online at https://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.c.3519009.
- Received June 9, 2016.
- Accepted September 23, 2016.
- © 2016 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.