How Likely Are We? Evolution of Organismal Complexity

  • William Bains


All complex multicellular organisms are eukaryotes. How did the evolution of the highly complex architecture of the eukaryotic cell arise? I discuss the differences between bacteria and archaea (prokaryotes) and eukaryotes in terms of chemistry, cellular structure, energetic and genetics. Chemistry and cell structure are less diagnostic of eukaryote than they appear at first. I focus on two pivotal differences between eukaryotes and other forms of life: energetics and genetic control. Eukaryotes can generate substantially more energy per gene than prokaryotes, and this has been suggested as the key enabler of complex genetics. I suggest that a more basic difference is the genetic logic of eukaryotes (not the genetic chemistry, which is shared with all domains of life). Eukaryotic genes are by default ‘off’, prokaryotic ones by default ‘on’. This difference makes growth in genome complexity easier, and growth in control complexity itself then drives a requirement for mitochondria and increased energy production. I conclude that, given ‘default off’ genetics, complex life is highly likely to evolve. The paths to the evolution of ‘default off’ genetics remain to be explored.


Sialic Acid Multicellular Organism Genome Complexity Prokaryotic Cell Linear Chromosome 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



I am very grateful to my colleague Dirk Schulze-Makuch (Washington State University, WA, USA, and Technical University, Berlin) for our work together on the major steps to complex life. I am also grateful to Janusz Petkowski (MIT, MA, USA) for many helpful comments, to Sara Seager (MIT, MA, USA) for her unfailing and generous support in this and other work, and to Pierre Pontarotti (Ai-Marseilles University, France) and the staff and attendees of the 19th Evolutionary Biology Meeting (Marseilles, France, September 2015) for encouraging me to order my thoughts on why any of us are here at all.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.EAPS MITCambridgeUSA

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