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How 5000 independent rowers coordinate their strokes in order to row into the sunlight: Phototaxis in the multicellular green alga Volvox

Noriko Ueki12, Shigeru Matsunaga23, Isao Inouye2 and Armin Hallmann1*

Author affiliations

1 Department of Cellular and Developmental Biology of Plants, University of Bielefeld, Universitätsstr. 25, 33615 Bielefeld, Germany

2 Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Tsukuba, Tsukuba, Ibaraki, 305-8577 Japan

3 The Promotion Center for Research and Education, Graduate University for Advanced Studies (Sokendai), Hayama, Kanagawa, 240-0193 Japan

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Citation and License

BMC Biology 2010, 8:103  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-8-103

Published: 27 July 2010



The evolution of multicellular motile organisms from unicellular ancestors required the utilization of previously evolved tactic behavior in a multicellular context. Volvocine green algae are uniquely suited for studying tactic responses during the transition to multicellularity because they range in complexity from unicellular to multicellular genera. Phototactic responses are essential for these flagellates because they need to orientate themselves to receive sufficient light for photosynthesis, but how does a multicellular organism accomplish phototaxis without any known direct communication among cells? Several aspects of the photoresponse have previously been analyzed in volvocine algae, particularly in the unicellular alga Chlamydomonas.


In this study, the phototactic behavior in the spheroidal, multicellular volvocine green alga Volvox rousseletii (Volvocales, Chlorophyta) was analyzed. In response to light stimuli, not only did the flagella waveform and beat frequency change, but the effective stroke was reversed. Moreover, there was a photoresponse gradient from the anterior to the posterior pole of the spheroid, and only cells of the anterior hemisphere showed an effective response. The latter caused a reverse of the fluid flow that was confined to the anterior hemisphere. The responsiveness to light is consistent with an anterior-to-posterior size gradient of eyespots. At the posterior pole, the eyespots are tiny or absent, making the corresponding cells appear to be blind. Pulsed light stimulation of an immobilized spheroid was used to simulate the light fluctuation experienced by a rotating spheroid during phototaxis. The results demonstrated that in free-swimming spheroids, only those cells of the anterior hemisphere that face toward the light source reverse the beating direction in the presence of illumination; this behavior results in phototactic turning. Moreover, positive phototaxis is facilitated by gravitational forces. Under our conditions, V. rousseletii spheroids showed no negative phototaxis.


On the basis of our results, we developed a mechanistic model that predicts the phototactic behavior in V. rousseletii. The model involves photoresponses, periodically changing light conditions, morphological polarity, rotation of the spheroid, two modes of flagellar beating, and the impact of gravity. Our results also indicate how recently evolved multicellular organisms adapted the phototactic capabilities of their unicellular ancestors to multicellular life.