• biological evolution;
  • blood vessels;
  • endothelium;
  • heart;
  • phylogeny


Every biological trait requires both a proximate and evolutionary explanation. The field of vascular biology is focused primarily on proximate mechanisms in health and disease. Comparatively little attention has been given to the evolutionary basis of the cardiovascular system. Here, we employ a comparative approach to review the phylogenetic history of the blood vascular system and endothelium. In addition to drawing on the published literature, we provide primary ultrastructural data related to the lobster, earthworm, amphioxus, and hagfish. Existing evidence suggests that the blood vascular system first appeared in an ancestor of the triploblasts over 600 million years ago, as a means to overcome the time-distance constraints of diffusion. The endothelium evolved in an ancestral vertebrate some 540–510 million years ago to optimize flow dynamics and barrier function, and/or to localize immune and coagulation functions. Finally, we emphasize that endothelial heterogeneity evolved as a core feature of the endothelium from the outset, reflecting its role in meeting the diverse needs of body tissues.