Amphioxus and the evolution of head segmentation

Holland, LZ, Holland ND, Gilland E.  2008.  Amphioxus and the evolution of head segmentation. Integrative and Comparative Biology. 48:630-646.

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central-nervous-system, chordate amphioxus, developmental expression, dogfish scyliorhinus-canicula, hox code, lethenteron-japonicum, neural crest, paraxial mesoderm, retinoic acid, vertebrate head


Whether or not the vertebrate head is fundamentally segmented has been controversial for over 150 years. Beginning in the late 19th century, segmentalist theories proposed that the vertebrate head evolved from an amphioxus-like ancestor in which mesodermal somites extended the full length of the body with remnants of segmentation persisting as the mesodermal head cavities of sharks and lampreys. Antisegmentalists generally argued either that the vertebrate ancestors never had any mesodermal segmentation anteriorly or that they lost it before the origin of the vertebrates; in either case, the earliest vertebrates had an unsegmented head and the embryonic cranial mesoderm of vertebrates is at best pseudo-segmented, evolving independently of any pre-vertebrate segmental pattern. Recent morphologic studies have generally confirmed the accuracy of the major classical studies of head development in lampreys and sharks, yet disagree with their theoretical conclusions regarding the evolution of head segmentation. Studies of developmental genes in amphioxus and vertebrates, which have demonstrated conservation of the mechanisms of anteriorposterior patterning in the two groups, have shed new light on this controversy. Most pertinently, some homologs of genes expressed in the anterior amphioxus somites, which form as outpocketings of the gut, are also expressed in the walls of the head cavities of lampreys, which form similarly, and in their major derivatives (the velar muscles) as well as in the eye and jaw muscles of bony gnathostomes, which derive from unsegmented head mesoderm. These muscles share gene expression with the corresponding muscles of the shark, which derive from the walls of head cavities that form, not as outpocketings of the gut, but as secondary cavities within solid blocks of tissue. While molecular data that can be compared across all the relevant taxa remain limited, they are consistent with an evolutionary scenario in which the cranial paraxial mesoderm of the lamprey and shark evolved from the anterior somites of an amphioxus-like ancestor. Although, bony vertebrates have lost the mesodermal head segments present in the shark and lamprey, their remnants persist in the muscles of the eye and jaw.