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Evolution of predetermined germ cells in vertebrate embryos: implications for macroevolution


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Summary The germ line is established in animal embryos with the formation of primordial germ cells (PGCs), which give rise to gametes. Therefore, the need to form PGCs can act as a developmental constraint by inhibiting the evolution of embryonic patterning mechanisms that compromise their development. Conversely, events that stabilize the PGCs may liberate these constraints. Two modes of germ cell determination exist in animal embryos: (a) either PGCs are predetermined by the inheritance of germ cell determinants (germ plasm) or (b) PGCs are formed by inducing signals secreted by embryonic tissues (i.e., regulative determination). Surprisingly, among the major extant amphibian lineages, one mechanism is found in urodeles and the other in anurans. In anuran amphibians PGCs are predetermined by germ plasm; in urodele amphibians PGCs are formed by inducing signals. To determine which mechanism is ancestral to the tetrapod lineage and to understand the pattern of inheritance in higher vertebrates, we used a phylogenetic approach to analyze basic morphological processes in both groups and correlated these with mechanisms of germ cell determination. Our results indicate that regulative germ cell determination is a property of embryos retaining ancestral embryological processes, whereas predetermined germ cells are found in embryos with derived morphological traits. These correlations suggest that regulative germ cell formation is an important developmental constraint in vertebrate embryos, acting before the highly conserved pharyngula stage. Moreover, our analysis suggests that germ plasm has evolved independently in several lineages of vertebrate embryos.

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