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Abstract

Nodal factors play crucial roles during embryogenesis of chordates. They have been implicated in a number of developmental processes, including mesoderm and endoderm formation and patterning of the embryo along the anterior–posterior and left–right axes. We have analyzed the function of the Nodal signaling pathway during the embryogenesis of the sea urchin, a non-chordate organism. We found that Nodal signaling plays a central role in axis specification in the sea urchin, but surprisingly, its first main role appears to be in ectoderm patterning and not in specification of the endoderm and mesoderm germ layers as in vertebrates. Starting at the early blastula stage, sea urchin nodal is expressed in the presumptive oral ectoderm where it controls the formation of the oral–aboral axis. A second conserved role for nodal signaling during vertebrate evolution is its involvement in the establishment of left–right asymmetries. Sea urchin larvae exhibit profound left–right asymmetry with the formation of the adult rudiment occurring only on the left side. We found that a nodal/lefty/pitx2 gene cassette regulates left–right asymmetry in the sea urchin but that intriguingly, the expression of these genes is reversed compared to vertebrates. We have shown that Nodal signals emitted from the right ectoderm of the larva regulate the asymmetrical morphogenesis of the coelomic pouches by inhibiting rudiment formation on the right side of the larva. This result shows that the mechanisms responsible for patterning the left–right axis are conserved in echinoderms and that this role for nodal is conserved among the deuterostomes. We will discuss the implications regarding the reference axes of the sea urchin and the ancestral function of the nodal gene in the last section of this review. J. Exp. Zool. (Mol. Dev. Evol.) 310B:41–53, 2008. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.