Development & Cell Biology

Tails of the unexpected

No longer just cellular janitors, cilia are making a clean sweep for biological greatness. Claire Ainsworth explores how they may hold the secret of multicellular development.

Nature, 9th August 2007

As orgies go, it’s pretty wild. Hundreds of whip-wielding participants pile into a seething ball. Stripping naked, they entwine and embrace, striving to make an intimate connection and consummate the union. If beaten to it by a rival, they move on to another partner until they get lucky. And chances are, it’s all carrying on right now in your garden.

By LadyofHats - Own work, Public Domain,
The eukaryotic cilium

But don’t call the police or reach for your camcorder yet. These swinging debauchers aren’t human, they’re single-celled algae called Chlamydomonas, commonly found in soil and water. Affectionately nicknamed ‘chlamy’ by the scientists who study them, these slimy green organisms and their rumbustious sex lives have a surprising connection with us and how our bodies work. Dissecting that connection is leading researchers to uncover a story that starts more than half-a-billion years ago and ends in modern-day illnesses such as diabetes, cancer and obesity. Along the way it touches the origin of bodies, beauty and symmetry, even helping reveal what makes individuals unique.