Cellular differentiation and individuality in the 'minor' multicellular taxa

Matthew D. Herron, Armin Rashidi, Deborah E. Shelton, William W. Driscoll

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Scopus citations


Biology needs a concept of individuality in order to distinguish organisms from parts of organisms and from groups of organisms, to count individuals and compare traits across taxa, and to distinguish growth from reproduction. Most of the proposed criteria for individuality were designed for 'unitary' or 'paradigm' organisms: contiguous, functionally and physiologically integrated, obligately sexually reproducing multicellular organisms with a germ line sequestered early in development. However, the vast majority of the diversity of life on Earth does not conform to all of these criteria. We consider the issue of individuality in the 'minor' multicellular taxa, which collectively span a large portion of the eukaryotic tree of life, reviewing their general features and focusing on a model species for each group. When the criteria designed for unitary organisms are applied to other groups, they often give conflicting answers or no answer at all to the question of whether or not a given unit is an individual. Complex life cycles, intimate bacterial symbioses, aggregative development, and strange genetic features complicate the picture. The great age of some of the groups considered shows that 'intermediate' forms, those with some but not all of the traits traditionally associated with individuality, cannot reasonably be considered ephemeral or assumed transitional. We discuss a handful of recent attempts to reconcile the many proposed criteria for individuality and to provide criteria that can be applied across all the domains of life. Finally, we argue that individuality should be defined without reference to any particular taxon and that understanding the emergence of new kinds of individuals requires recognizing individuality as a matter of degree.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)844-861
Number of pages18
JournalBiological Reviews
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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