Evolution of Cellular Differentiation: From Hypotheses to Models

Pedro Márquez-Zacarías, Rozenn M. Pineau, Marcella Gomez, Alan Veliz-Cuba, David Murrugarra, William C. Ratcliff, Karl J. Niklas

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Cellular differentiation is one of the hallmarks of complex multicellularity, allowing individual organisms to capitalize on among-cell functional diversity. The evolution of multicellularity is a major evolutionary transition that allowed for the increase of organismal complexity in multiple lineages, a process that relies on the functional integration of cell-types within an individual. Multiple hypotheses have been proposed to explain the origins of cellular differentiation, but we lack a general understanding of what makes one cell-type distinct from others, and how such differentiation arises. Here, we describe how the use of Boolean networks (BNs) can aid in placing empirical findings into a coherent conceptual framework, and we emphasize some of the standing problems when interpreting data and model behaviors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)49-60
Number of pages12
JournalTrends in Ecology and Evolution
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
P.M-Z., R.P., M.G., A.V.C., D.M., and K.J.N. attended a summit and a follow-up workshop at the Mathematical Bioscience Institute at The Ohio State University (MBI-OSU), supported by the NSF grant DMS-1839810 , where this paper was conceived. The authors thank Matthew Thompson and Janet Best for assistance. A.V.C. received support from the Simons Foundation ( 516088 ). P.M-Z., R.P., and W.C.R. were supported by NSF grants IOS-1656549 and DEB-1845363 . P.M-Z. acknowledges the members of the Ratcliff Lab for engaging discussions on an earlier version of this manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Elsevier Ltd

Copyright 2020 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Boolean networks
  • cellular differentiation
  • dynamical systems
  • multicellularity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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