The number of cell types, information content, and the evolution of complex multicellularity

Karl J. Niklas, Edward D. Cobb, A. Keith Dunker


The number of different cell types (NCT) characterizing an organism is often used to quantify organismic complexity. This method results in the tautology that more complex organisms have a larger number of different kinds of cells, and that organisms with more different kinds of cells are more complex. This circular reasoning can be avoided (and simultaneously tested) when NCT is plotted against different measures of organismic information content (e.g., genome or proteome size). This approach is illustrated by plotting the NCT of representative diatoms, green and brown algae, land plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates against data for genome size (number of base-pairs), proteome size (number of amino acids), and proteome functional versatility (number of intrinsically disordered protein domains or residues). Statistical analyses of these data indicate that increases in NCT fail to keep pace with increases in genome size, but exceed a one-to-one scaling relationship with increasing proteome size and with increasing numbers of intrinsically disordered protein residues. We interpret these trends to indicate that comparatively small increases in proteome (and not genome size) are associated with disproportionate increases in NCT, and that proteins with intrinsically disordered domains enhance cell type diversity and thus contribute to the evolution of complex multicellularity.


algae; alternative splicing; embryophytes; genome size; G paradox; intrinsically disordered proteins; land plants

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