Molecular studies of hemichordate development: a key to understanding the evolution of bilateral animals and chordates


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SUMMARY Using the Hawaiian acorn worm, Ptychodera flava, we began molecular studies on the development of hemichordates, a phylum previously unstudied at this level. Here we review results garnered from the examination of a few specific genes selected to help understand the evolution of vertebrate structures. These studies suggest new ideas about the evolution of developmental mechanisms in the deuterostomes. In a seminal observation, we noted an unexpected zone of expression of the Brachyury gene in the early anterior embryonic ectoderm where the mouth will form. Typically, the Brachyury gene is closely linked to development of the notochord and is expressed around the blastopore and in the posterior mesoderm in most animals. This first expression of Brachyury at the blastopore may represent a regulatory program associated with organizing the original animal head and gut opening, as suggested by the expression of Brachyury during hypostome formation in hydra. We believe that the anterior expression of Brachyury in deuterostomes represents the cooption of the program for organizing the original animal gut opening to form the deuterostome mouth. Recent data from the trochophore larva of a polychaete show that an anterior zone of expression of Brachyury is produced in this protostome by splitting of the Brachyury field during the formation of a gut with a mouth and anus by the lateral fusion of the sides of the blastopore. The ability to initiate independently a secondary regulatory program to organize the new mouth leading to an anterior field of Brachyury expression may be a signal event in the evolution of the deuterostomes. We also noted that the P. flava homolog of T-brain/Eomes, a gene closely related by sequence and expression around the blastopore to Brachyury and associated with development of the vertebrate brain, also exhibits early posterior expression around the blastopore and a field of de novo anterior ectoderm expression during later embryogenesis. The tissue in the zone of de novo anterior ectoderm expression of Pf-Tbrain produces the apical organ, a larval neural structure that has been touted as an evolutionary precursor of the chordate dorsal brain. The gene regulatory mechanisms responsible for initiating the anterior zone of de novo expression of T-brain may represent a cooption to specify early neuroectoderm of the regulatory program evolved first to drive anterior Brachyury expression for deuterostome mouth formation. It will be interesting to examine the possibilities that an ability to initiate the de novo anterior expression of the program that includes T-brain may be a key event in the evolution of the developmental mechanisms leading to the chordate dorsal nervous system.