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The emergence of new replicating entities from the union of simpler entities represent some of the most profound events in natural evolutionary history. Such transitions in individuality are essential to the evolution of the most complex forms of life. As such, understanding these transitions is critical to building artificial systems capable of open-ended evolution. Alas, these transitions are challenging to induce or detect, even with computational organisms. Here, we introduce the DISHTINY (DIStributed Hierarchical Transitions in IndividualitY) platform, which provides simple cell-like organisms with the ability and incentive to unite into new individuals in a manner that can continue to scale to subsequent transitions. The system is designed to encourage these transitions so that they can be studied: organisms that coordinate spatiotemporally can maximize the rate of resource harvest, which is closely linked to their reproductive ability. We demonstrate the hierarchical emergence of multiple levels of individuality among simple cell-like organisms that evolve parameters for manually-designed strategies. During evolution, we observe reproductive division of labor and close cooperation among cells, including resource-sharing, aggregation of resource endowments for propagules, and emergence of an apoptosis response to somatic mutation. Many replicate populations evolved to direct their resources toward low-level groups (behaving like multi-cellular individuals) and many others evolved to direct their resources toward high-level groups (acting as larger-scale multi-cellular individuals).
We improved the execution of the control treatment, in part assuring that the cellular generation rate was more closely matched to the standard treatment.