The development and evolution of the pharyngeal arches


Dr Anthony Graham MRC Centre for Developmental Neurobiology, 4th Floor New Hunt's House, Guy's Campus, King's; College London, London SE1 1UL, UK. Tel.: + 44 20 7848 6804; fax: + 44 20 7848 6816; e-mail:


A muscularised pharynx, with skeletal support, serving the dual functions of feeding and respiration, is a fundamental vertebrate characteristic. Embryologically, the pharyngeal apparatus has its origin in a series of bulges that form on the lateral surface of the embryonic head, the pharyngeal arches, whose development is complex. These structures are composed of a number of disparate embryonic cell types: ectoderm, endoderm, neural crest and mesoderm, whose development must be coordinated to generate the functional adult apparatus. In the past, most studies have emphasised the role played by the neural crest, which generates the skeletal elements of the arches, in directing pharyngeal arch development, but it has also become apparent that the endoderm plays a prominent role in directing arch development. Neural crest cells are not required for arch formation, their regionalisation nor to some extent their sense of identity. Furthermore, the endoderm is the major site of expression of a number of important signalling molecules, and this tissue has been shown to be responsible for promoting the formation of particular components of the arches. Thus vertebrate pharyngeal morphogenesis can now be seen to be a more complex process than was previously believed, and must result from an integration of both neural crest and endodermal patterning mechanisms. Interestingly, this also mirrors the fact that the evolutionary origin of pharyngeal segmentation predates that of the neural crest, which is an exclusively vertebrate characteristic. As such, the evolution of the vertebrate pharynx is also likely to have resulted from an integration between these 2 patterning systems. Alterations in the interplay between neural crest and endodermal patterning are also likely to be responsible for the evolutionary that occurred to the pharyngeal region during subsequent vertebrate evolution.