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Keywords:

  • Basal metazoan phyla;
  • bodyplan evolution;
  • Cambrian explosion;
  • genome evolution

The genomes of taxa whose stem lineages branched early in metazoan history, and of allied protistan groups, provide a tantalizing outline of the morphological and genomic changes that accompanied the origin and early diversifications of animals. Genome comparisons show that the early clades increasingly contain genes that mediate development of complex features only seen in later metazoan branches. Peak additions of protein-coding regulatory genes occurred deep in the metazoan tree, evidently within stem groups of metazoans and eumetazoans. However, the bodyplans of these early-branching clades are relatively simple. The existence of major elements of the bilaterian developmental toolkit in these simpler organisms implies that these components evolved for functions other than the production of complex morphology, preadapting the genome for the morphological differentiation that occurred higher in metazoan phylogeny. Stem lineages of the bilaterian phyla apparently required few additional genes beyond their diploblastic ancestors. As disparate bodyplans appeared and diversified during the Cambrian explosion, increasing complexity was accommodated largely through changes in cis-regulatory networks, accompanied by some additional gene novelties. Subsequently, protein-coding genic richness appears to have essentially plateaued. Some genomic evidence suggests that similar stages of genomic evolution may have accompanied the rise of land plants.