Non-neural ectoderm is really neural: evolution of developmental patterning mechanisms in the non-neural ectoderm of chordates and the problem of sensory cell homologies


  • Supported by grants from the National Science Foundation IBN-0416292, IBN-0236171 and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration NAG2-1585.


In chordates, the ectoderm is divided into the neuroectoderm and the so-called non-neural ectoderm. In spite of its name, however, the non-neural ectoderm contains numerous sensory cells. Therefore, the term “non-neural” ectoderm should be replaced by “general ectoderm.” At least in amphioxus and tunicates and possibly in vertebrates as well, both the neuroectoderm and the general ectoderm are patterned anterior/posteriorly by mechanisms involving retinoic acid and Hox genes. In amphioxus and tunicates the ectodermal sensory cells, which have a wide range of ciliary and microvillar configurations, are mostly primary neurons sending axons to the CNS, although a minority lack axons. In contrast, vertebrate mechanosensory cells, called hair cells, are all secondary neurons that lack axons and have a characteristic eccentric cilium adjacent to a group of microvilli of graded lengths. It has been highly controversial whether the ectodermal sensory cells in the oral siphons of adult tunicates are homologous to vertebrate hair cells. In some species of tunicates, these cells appear to be secondary neurons, and microvillar and ciliary configurations of some of these cells approach those of vertebrate hair cells. However, none of the tunicate cells has all the characteristics of a hair cell, and there is a high degree of variation among ectodermal sensory cells within and between different species. Thus, similarities between the ectodermal sensory cells of any one species of tunicate and craniate hair cells may well represent convergent evolution rather than homology. J. Exp. Zool. (Mol. Dev. Evol.) 304B, 2005. © 2005 Wiley-Liss, Inc