Published on Sat May 15 2021

Evolutionary assembly of cooperating cell types in an animal chemical defense system

Bruckner, A., Badroos, J., Learsch, R. W., Yousefelahiyeh, M., Kitchen, S. A., Parker, J.

A long-standing challenge in biology is explaining how the functions of multicellular organs emerge from the underlying evolution of cell types. We deconstructed evolution of an organ novelty: a rove beetle gland that secretes a defensive cocktail. We show that gland function was pieced together via assembly of two cell types that manufacture distinct compounds. One cell type forms a chemical reservoir in the beetles abdomen and produces alkane and ester compounds. We demonstrate that this cell type is a hybrid of cuticle cells and ancient pheromone and adipocyte-like cells, and executes its function via a mosaic of enzymes sourced from each parental cell type. The second cell type synthesizes noxious benzoquinones using a chimeric pathway derived from conserved cellular energy and cuticle formation pathways. We present evidence that evolution of each cell type was shaped by coevolution between the two cell types: the benzoquinones produced by the second cell type dissolve in solvents produced by the first, yielding a potent secretion that confers adaptive value onto the gland as a whole. Our findings illustrate how cooperation between cell types can arise, generating new, organ-level behaviors.