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Early differentiation and migration of cranial neural crest in the opossum, Monodelphis domestica


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SUMMARY Marsupial mammals are born at a highly altricial state. Nonetheless, the neonate must be capable of considerable functional independence. Comparative studies have shown that in marsupials the morphogenesis of many structures critical to independent function are advanced relative to overall development. Many skeletal and muscular elements in the facial region show particular heterochrony. Because neural crest cells are crucial to forming and patterning much of the face, this study investigates whether the timing of cranial neural crest differentiation is also advanced. Histology and scanning electron microscopy of Monodelphis domestica embryos show that many aspects of cranial neural crest differentiation and migration are conserved in marsupials. For example, as in other vertebrates, cranial neural crest differentiates at the neural ectoderm/epidermal boundary and migrates as three major streams. However, when compared with other vertebrates, a number of timing differences exist. The onset of cranial neural crest migration is early relative to both neural tube development and somite formation in Monodelphis. First arch neural crest cell migration is particularly advanced and begins before any somites appear or regional differentiation exists in the neural tube. Our study provides the first published description of cranial neural crest differentiation and migration in marsupials and offers insight into how shifts in early developmental processes can lead to morphological change.