• Open Access

A new scenario of the evolutionary derivation of the mammalian diaphragm from shoulder muscles



Tatsuya Hirasawa, Laboratory for Evolutionary Morphology, RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, 2-2-3 Minatojima-minami, Chuo, Kobe, Hyogo 650-0047, Japan. T: + 81 78 3063387;

F: + 81 78 3063370; E: hirasawa@cdb.riken.jp


The evolutionary origin of the diaphragm remains unclear, due to the lack of a comparable structure in other extant taxa. However, recent researches into the developmental mechanism of this structure have yielded new insights into its origin. Here we summarize current understanding regarding the development of the diaphragm, and present a possible scenario for the evolutionary acquisition of this uniquely mammalian structure. Recent developmental analyses indicate that the diaphragm and forelimb muscles are derived from a shared cell population during embryonic development. Therefore, the embryonic positions of forelimb muscle progenitors, which correspond to the position of the brachial plexus, likely played an important role in the evolution of the diaphragm. We surveyed the literature to reexamine the position of the brachial plexus among living amniotes and confirmed that the cervico-thoracic transition in ribs reflects the brachial plexus position. Using this osteological correlate, we concluded that the anterior borders of the brachial plexuses in the stem synapsids were positioned at the level of the fourth spinal nerve, suggesting that the forelimb buds were laid in close proximity of the infrahyoid muscles. The topology of the phrenic and suprascapular nerves of mammals is similar to that of subscapular and supracoracoid nerves, respectively, of the other amniotes, suggesting that the diaphragm evolved from a muscle positioned medial to the pectoral girdle (cf. subscapular muscle). We hypothesize that the diaphragm was acquired in two steps: first, forelimb muscle cells were incorporated into tissues to form a primitive diaphragm in the stem synapsid grade, and second, the diaphragm in cynodonts became entrapped in the region controlled by pulmonary development.