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1.  Evolutionary origin of gastrulation: insights from sponge development 
BMC Biology  2014;12:26.
The evolutionary origin of gastrulation—defined as a morphogenetic event that leads to the establishment of germ layers—remains a vexing question. Central to this debate is the evolutionary relationship between the cell layers of sponges (poriferans) and eumetazoan germ layers. Despite considerable attention, it remains unclear whether sponge cell layers undergo progressive fate determination akin to eumetazoan primary germ layer formation during gastrulation.
Here we show by cell-labelling experiments in the demosponge Amphimedon queenslandica that the cell layers established during embryogenesis have no relationship to the cell layers of the juvenile. In addition, juvenile epithelial cells can transdifferentiate into a range of cell types and move between cell layers. Despite the apparent lack of cell layer and fate determination and stability in this sponge, the transcription factor GATA, a highly conserved eumetazoan endomesodermal marker, is expressed consistently in the inner layer of A. queenslandica larvae and juveniles.
Our results are compatible with sponge cell layers not undergoing progressive fate determination and thus not being homologous to eumetazoan germ layers. Nonetheless, the expression of GATA in the sponge inner cell layer suggests a shared ancestry with the eumetazoan endomesoderm, and that the ancestral role of GATA in specifying internalised cells may antedate the origin of germ layers. Together, these results support germ layers and gastrulation evolving early in eumetazoan evolution from pre-existing developmental programs used for the simple patterning of cells in the first multicellular animals.
PMCID: PMC4021757  PMID: 24678663
Evolution; Gastrulation; Germ layers; Sponge development; GATA
2.  Modularity of gene-regulatory networks revealed in sea-star development 
BMC Biology  2011;9:6.
Evidence that conserved developmental gene-regulatory networks can change as a unit during deutersostome evolution emerges from a study published in BMC Biology. This shows that genes consistently expressed in anterior brain patterning in hemichordates and chordates are expressed in a similar spatial pattern in another deuterostome, an asteroid echinoderm (sea star), but in a completely different developmental context (the animal-vegetal axis). This observation has implications for hypotheses on the type of development present in the deuterostome common ancestor.
See research article:
PMCID: PMC3032766  PMID: 21281525
3.  Early evolution of the LIM homeobox gene family 
BMC Biology  2010;8:4.
LIM homeobox (Lhx) transcription factors are unique to the animal lineage and have patterning roles during embryonic development in flies, nematodes and vertebrates, with a conserved role in specifying neuronal identity. Though genes of this family have been reported in a sponge and a cnidarian, the expression patterns and functions of the Lhx family during development in non-bilaterian phyla are not known.
We identified Lhx genes in two cnidarians and a placozoan and report the expression of Lhx genes during embryonic development in Nematostella and the demosponge Amphimedon. Members of the six major LIM homeobox subfamilies are represented in the genomes of the starlet sea anemone, Nematostella vectensis, and the placozoan Trichoplax adhaerens. The hydrozoan cnidarian, Hydra magnipapillata, has retained four of the six Lhx subfamilies, but apparently lost two others. Only three subfamilies are represented in the haplosclerid demosponge Amphimedon queenslandica. A tandem cluster of three Lhx genes of different subfamilies and a gene containing two LIM domains in the genome of T. adhaerens (an animal without any neurons) indicates that Lhx subfamilies were generated by tandem duplication. This tandem cluster in Trichoplax is likely a remnant of the original chromosomal context in which Lhx subfamilies first appeared. Three of the six Trichoplax Lhx genes are expressed in animals in laboratory culture, as are all Lhx genes in Hydra. Expression patterns of Nematostella Lhx genes correlate with neural territories in larval and juvenile polyp stages. In the aneural demosponge, A. queenslandica, the three Lhx genes are expressed widely during development, including in cells that are associated with the larval photosensory ring.
The Lhx family expanded and diversified early in animal evolution, with all six subfamilies already diverged prior to the cnidarian-placozoan-bilaterian last common ancestor. In Nematostella, Lhx gene expression is correlated with neural territories in larval and juvenile polyp stages. This pattern is consistent with a possible role in patterning the Nematostella nervous system. We propose a scenario in which Lhx genes play a homologous role in neural patterning across eumetazoans.
PMCID: PMC2828406  PMID: 20082688
4.  Candidate chemoreceptor subfamilies differentially expressed in the chemosensory organs of the mollusc Aplysia 
BMC Biology  2009;7:28.
Marine molluscs, as is the case with most aquatic animals, rely heavily on olfactory cues for survival. In the mollusc Aplysia californica, mate-attraction is mediated by a blend of water-borne protein pheromones that are detected by sensory structures called rhinophores. The expression of G protein and phospholipase C signaling molecules in this organ is consistent with chemosensory detection being via a G-protein-coupled signaling mechanism.
Here we show that novel multi-transmembrane proteins with similarity to rhodopsin G-protein coupled receptors are expressed in sensory epithelia microdissected from the Aplysia rhinophore. Analysis of the A. californica genome reveals that these are part of larger multigene families that possess features found in metazoan chemosensory receptor families (that is, these families chiefly consist of single exon genes that are clustered in the genome). Phylogenetic analyses show that the novel Aplysia G-protein coupled receptor-like proteins represent three distinct monophyletic subfamilies. Representatives of each subfamily are restricted to or differentially expressed in the rhinophore and oral tentacles, suggesting that they encode functional chemoreceptors and that these olfactory organs sense different chemicals. Those expressed in rhinophores may sense water-borne pheromones. Secondary signaling component proteins Gαq, Gαi, and Gαo are also expressed in the rhinophore sensory epithelium.
The novel rhodopsin G-protein coupled receptor-like gene subfamilies identified here do not have closely related identifiable orthologs in other metazoans, suggesting that they arose by a lineage-specific expansion as has been observed in chemosensory receptor families in other bilaterians. These candidate chemosensory receptors are expressed and often restricted to rhinophores and oral tentacles, lending support to the notion that water-borne chemical detection in Aplysia involves species- or lineage-specific families of chemosensory receptors.
PMCID: PMC2700072  PMID: 19493360
5.  A rapidly evolving secretome builds and patterns a sea shell 
BMC Biology  2006;4:40.
Instructions to fabricate mineralized structures with distinct nanoscale architectures, such as seashells and coral and vertebrate skeletons, are encoded in the genomes of a wide variety of animals. In mollusks, the mantle is responsible for the extracellular production of the shell, directing the ordered biomineralization of CaCO3 and the deposition of architectural and color patterns. The evolutionary origins of the ability to synthesize calcified structures across various metazoan taxa remain obscure, with only a small number of protein families identified from molluskan shells. The recent sequencing of a wide range of metazoan genomes coupled with the analysis of gene expression in non-model animals has allowed us to investigate the evolution and process of biomineralization in gastropod mollusks.
Here we show that over 25% of the genes expressed in the mantle of the vetigastropod Haliotis asinina encode secreted proteins, indicating that hundreds of proteins are likely to be contributing to shell fabrication and patterning. Almost 85% of the secretome encodes novel proteins; remarkably, only 19% of these have identifiable homologues in the full genome of the patellogastropod Lottia scutum. The spatial expression profiles of mantle genes that belong to the secretome is restricted to discrete mantle zones, with each zone responsible for the fabrication of one of the structural layers of the shell. Patterned expression of a subset of genes along the length of the mantle is indicative of roles in shell ornamentation. For example, Has-sometsuke maps precisely to pigmentation patterns in the shell, providing the first case of a gene product to be involved in molluskan shell pigmentation. We also describe the expression of two novel genes involved in nacre (mother of pearl) deposition.
The unexpected complexity and evolvability of this secretome and the modular design of the molluskan mantle enables diversification of shell strength and design, and as such must contribute to the variety of adaptive architectures and colors found in mollusk shells. The composition of this novel mantle-specific secretome suggests that there are significant molecular differences in the ways in which gastropods synthesize their shells.
PMCID: PMC1676022  PMID: 17121673

Results 1-5 (5)