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Ch.6 (Erwin) The Developmental Origins of Animal Bodyplans

Ch.6 (Erwin) The Developmental Origins of Animal Bodyplans

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There are a variety of questions one might like to answer about the origin

of animal bodyplans: When did these bodyplans arise? What was the rate of

developmental and morphological innovation associated with these events?

How reliably does the fossil record reflect the pattern of metazoan

divergences and the timing of origin of bodyplans? How do these events

relate to environmental and ecological changes? And more broadly, what, if

anything, does this evolutionary episode tell us about the nature of the

evolutionary process? Each of these questions has been the subject of

learned discourse and even summarizing the history of these discussions

would exhaust both the available space and the reader’s attention (for an

excellent recent and comprehensive review see Valentine, 2004).

Here I will focus largely on the developmental aspects of the origin of

animal bodyplans, particularly as revealed over the past decade or so by

studies of recent organisms. Contrary to all expectation, such comparative

studies have revealed remarkable conservation of regulatory elements across

considerable phylogenetic distance. Placed in a phylogenetic framework,

these studies have permitted inferences about the nature of many nodes on

the phylogenetic tree, and from this we can develop and evaluate models of

the processes of developmental evolution. As will become evident, my own

view is that evidence of conservation of sequence and even regulatory

relationships are not a guarantee of functional conservation. Consequently

inferring the morphologic attributes of early metazoa is much more

problematic than some have argued (see also Erwin and Davidson, 2002).

Understanding these developmental innovations is important for another

reason: identifying the complexity of various nodes during the early history

of animals is critical to constraining the dates of these nodes and, more

importantly, distinguishing between alternative forcing functions for the

radiation of the bilaterian metazoans. If early animals, and in particular the

last common ancestor of all bilaterians, already possessed high

developmental complexity, then developmental innovations alone would

seem to be an unlikely cause of the metazoan radiation (see Valentine and

Erwin, 1987). Alternatively, it could be that we can identify a suite of

developmental innovations both necessary and sufficient for some or all of

the new bodyplans that appear during the Ediacaran–Cambrian metazoan

radiation. If, however, we find that the necessary genetic and developmental

toolkit for building the panoply of bodyplans pre-dates the metazoan

radiation, this is strong evidence that we must search instead for either

changes in the physical environment or in the dynamics of ecological

interactions. These latter two issues are considered in more detail in Erwin


The Developmental Origins of Animal Bodyplans


A host of genomic and developmental changes are associated with the

origin and radiation of early metazoa ranging from gene duplications and

possibly whole-genome duplication (e.g., Lundin, 1999, but see Hughes,

2003) to enhanced gene complexity and post-translational modification.

New metazoan genes constructed by splicing domains have created new

signal transduction and cell communication abilities (Cohen-Gihon et al.,

2005), for example. As important as these are as mechanisms of change,

they are less clearly associated with body plan evolution. Consequently,

here I will concentrate on these highly conserved genes that have been

linked to particular aspects of body plan evolution.

The first recognition of highly conserved developmental and regulatory

modules between various model organisms (initially Drosophila and various

vertebrates but now including a broader range of organisms) led to a burst of

speculation about the last common bilaterian ancestor. Variously known as

the ‘Urbilateria’ or the protostome-deuterostome ancestor, such

commentaries attempted to identify the shared features of the great bilaterian


The recognition that the Hox cluster, involved in anterior-posterior

patterning of the body, was highly conserved led Slack et al. (1993) to define

animals as “organism[s] that displays a particular spatial pattern of gene

expression…” (p. 490), that they defined as the zootype. Critical to this idea

was the recognition that there are a number of patterning genes shared

between Drosophila and vertebrates, including the Hox clusters,

orthodenticle (otd), empty spiracles (ems), and even-skipped. Slack and

colleagues emphasized the role of Hox genes in specifying relative position

rather than specific structures, and based on the identification of a hox gene

(cnox-2) in Hydra they proposed this as a synapomorphy of the Metazoa,

and the zootype. They suggested that the zootype was expressed at the

phylotypic stage of development, when the precursor of the individual

bodyplans first becomes evident and the major elements of the body plan are

present as undifferentiated cellular forms. Although the zootype played

some role in later discussions, principally through depiction of an hourglass

figure, with diverse early and late developmental patterns but the greater

similarity of the phylotypic stage denoted by the neck of the glass, it is

overly typological (e.g., Schierwater and Kuhn, 1998) and did little to define

the early stages of metazoan evolution.

A more concrete step in 1993 came from Shenk and Steele in “A

molecular snapshot of the metazoan ‘Eve’.” They identified a series of

conserved elements within a phylogenetic framework. These included such

transcription factors as the Hox cluster, eve, engrailed, msh and NK, a

variety of cell-cell communication molecules and such architectural

elements as extra-cellular matrix proteins like type IV collagen. They did not



attempt to describe the nature of the earliest metazoans, but emphasized the

importance of comparative studies to identify the nodes at which critical

innovations had occurred.

Scott (1994) was more daring, employing conservation of the Hox

cluster, Nkx-2.5 and tinman as well as Pax6 to suggest that the ancestral

bilaterian had anterior-posterior (A/P) patterning with at least four Hox

genes, head and brain formation controlled by Otd and ems, heart formation

produced from tinman and at least simple photoreceptive capability.

Two years latter much additional information had appeared, leading to

various discussions of developmental aspects of early metazoan evolution.

The most provocative was from de Robertis and Sasai (1996) who revived

Geoffroy Saint-Hillaire’s suggestions that the dorsoventral body axis had

been inverted between protostomes and deuterostomes, with the ventral

region of arthropods homologous to the dorsal side of vertebrates. This

proposal was stimulated by the discovery that dorsal-ventral patterning in

Drosophila, including the genes sog, dpp and others, are also present in the

African clawed toad Xenopus and other vertebrates as chd and Bmp-4.

Indeed the entire regulatory circuit appears to be conserved, but in an

inverted fashion. Thus sog is expressed ventrally in Drosophila where it

antagonizes expression of dpp, which is thus restricted to the ventral region.

The situation is reversed in Xenopus, with chd expressed dorsally and

antagonizing the homolog of dpp, Bmp-4. De Robertis and Sasai went on to

christen the “Urbilateria” as an organism possessing A/P and dorsal-ventral

(D/P) patterning, a subdermal longitudinal central nervous system, primitive

photoreception, and a circulatory system with a contractile organ. They also

suggested that segmentation and appendages might have been present.

A proliferation of speculation soon followed concerning the nature of

early metazoans, based on the surge of developmental information (e.g.,

Holland, 2000; Shankland and Seaver, 2000). Kimmel (1996) suggest that

segmentation between arthropods and vertebrates was homologous based on

the apparent similarities in expression patterns between the Drosophila pairrule gene hairy and the zebrafish gene her1 (Müller et al., 1996).

Paleontologists soon became interested in these discussions as well, for

the information from development promised to reveal much about

evolutionary events of the latest Neoproterozoic and Cambrian. In

particular, a number of paleontologists have addressed the issue of how the

integration of developmental data with data from trace and body fossils may

constrain the timing and even processes involved in the Cambrian metazoan

radiation (e.g., Conway Morris, 1994, 1998; Erwin et al., 1997; Knoll and

Carroll, 1999; Valentine, 2004; Valentine and Jablonski, 2003; Valentine et

al., 1999)

The Developmental Origins of Animal Bodyplans


These earlier discussions of the role comparative developmental

information can play in elucidating the nature of the developmental

innovations leading to animal bodyplans set the stage for the remainder of

this contribution. I will focus first on what is known and can be inferred of

pre-bilaterian developmental patterning before turning to a more exhaustive

treatment of the conserved developmental features among the Bilateria. I

then evaluate different models for how to interpret this developmental

information, distinguishing between a high degree of functional

conservation, leading to a maximally complex Urbilateria, from the

alternative view that the ancestral role of many of these highly conserved

elements was much simpler, more akin to a developmental toolkit than fully

realized morphogenetic patterning. I then turn briefly to molecular and

developmental information on the timing of the origins of these bodyplans

and to the ecological context in which they occur.





Phylogenetic Framework

Understanding the pattern of developmental and morphological change

leading to the diversity of existing animal bodyplans and others documented

only from the fossil record requires a well-developed phylogenetic

framework. Fortunately, combined molecular and morphological data sets

have revolutionized our views of metazoan relationships over the past

several decades (see recent reviews by Eernisse and Peterson, 2004;

Halanych, 2004; Giribet, 2003; Valentine, 2004). The growing number of

workers in this area and the steady development of both analytical

techniques and growing data sets will probably provide further surprises in

the years ahead.

A number of nodes on the metazoan tree remain uncertain, but consensus

between molecular and morphological analyses has been achieved in others.

Several critical issues in metazoan phylogeny remain in dispute (contrast

Fig. 1A and Fig. 1B). Areas of agreement include: 1) Choanoflagellates are

the closest sister group to metazoans; 2) The siliceous and calcareous

sponges arose independently (e.g., Botting and Butterfield, 2005 and

references therein); 3) Ctenophores are the most basal Eumetazoan clade,

with cnidarians the next most basal branch; 4) The Ecdysozoa (Arthropoda,



Figure 1. Phylogenetic framework for the metazoa used in this paper, based on recent

molecular and morphological analyses. This topology largely follows Eernisse and Peterson

(2004). Fig. 1A shows the topology accepted by many, uniting the Ecdysozoa and the

Lophotrochozoa into the classic protostomes. Fig. 1B shows Eernisse and Peterson’s

preferred topology with the Ecdysozoa the sister clade to the deuterostomes, to the exclusion

of the Lophotrochozoa. The square represents the position of the Urbilaterian node in the two


The Developmental Origins of Animal Bodyplans


tardigrades, nematodes and priapulids plus others) are a monophyletic clade

(Giribet, 2003). Areas of continuing uncertainty involve: 1) The position of

the acoel flatworms, which have been separated from the remaining

playhelminthes and appear to be the most basal bilaterians (Ruiz-Trillo et al.,

1999); 2) The relationships among the remaining major bilaterian clades.

Since Aguinaldo et al. (1997), many have accepted the division between

three large bilaterians subclades, the Ecdysozoa (arthropods, priapulids and

allies), the deuterostomes (chordates, echinoderms and hemichordates) and

the lophotrochozoans (annelids, molluscs, lophophorates and others).

Although the Lophotrochozoa and Ecdysozoa have generally been united in

the classic protostomes (Fig. 1A) Eernisse and Peterson note that there is a

lack of support for this claim, and their analysis shows the Lophotrochozoa

and deuterostomes as sister taxa (Fig. 1B) while Philip et al. (2005) claim

support for the old coelomata hypothesis of arthropoda + chordata based on

their molecular phylogeny. Halanych (2004), although cognizant of the

difficulties identified by Eernisse and Peterson favors the Ecdysozoan +

Lophotrochozoan topology based on the purported lophotrochozoan

signatures in five hox genes (Balvoine et al., 2002) as does Phillippe et al.’s

(2005) reanalysis of molecular data. Note that the classic protostomedeuterostome ancestor does not exist in topology 1B where the critical node

becomes the origin of the Bilateria and thus the critical hypothetical ancestor

is that of the Urbilateria.


Unicellular Development

Multicellularity arose multiple times across a variety of eukaryotic

lineages (Buss, 1987; Kaiser, 2001; King, 2004). The asymmetric pattern of

these appearances suggests that some clades possessed more of the

requirements for multicellularity than others (King, 2004). It has long been

apparent that many features once considered as defining elements of the

Metazoa are shared with a range of unicellular ancestors (see discussions in

Wolpert, 1990, Erwin, 1993). On a molecular level, the specific cell-cell

signalling pathways are also highly conserved (e.g., Gerhart, 1999).

The similarities between choanoflagellates and the collar cells of

sponges have fueled views that they were the closest relatives of metazoa, a

view now amply supported by molecular evidence (reviewed by King,

2004). The antecedents of cell adhesion, signal transduction and cellular

differentiation are all found among the choanoflagellates. King et al. (2003)

analyzed more than 5000 expressed sequence tags (ESTs) to identify

representatives of a number of cell signalling and adhesion protein families

in two choanoflagellate species. They found a variety of elements involved

in cell-cell interactions in Metazoa including cadherins, C-type lectins,



tyrosine kinases, and discovered that cell proliferation is controlled by

tyrosine kinase inhibitors. Their presence in choanoflagellates demonstrates

that they are exaptations co-opted for their role in animals. Much of

metazoan diversity of tyrosine kinases, a critical component in cell







choanoflagellates and the base of Metazoa (Suga et al., 2001), perhaps via

rapid shuffling of protein domains (King, 2004).

Thus by the time extant metazoan lineages appeared, the earliest metazoa

had acquired an extracellular matrix for cell support, differentiation and

movement (as has long been apparent from microscopy); differentiated cell

types produced by linking signalling pathways and the multitude of

metazoan-specific transcription factors (Degnan et al., 2005); cell junctions

to facilitate communication between cells and the extra-cellular

communication mediated by the tyrosine kinases.


Poriferan Development

In a recent review of sponge development Müller et al. (2004) described

them as “complex and simple but by far not primitive” (p. 54). Müller and

his group in Mainz coined the term “Urmetazoan” for the ancestral metazoan

and for the past decade have been applying a range of molecular techniques

to understanding the novelties that lie at the base of the metazoa. The

urmetazoan appears to have had a suite of cell adhesion molecules with

intracellular signal transduction pathways, the ability to produce

morphogenic gradients, an immune system and a simple ability to pass

messages between nerve cells (Müller, 2001; Müller et al., 2004: this is the

basis for the following review). Sponge morphogenesis is facilitated by

extracellular morphogens and several transcription factors. Two T-box

transcription factors have been recovered from the demosponge Suberites

douncula, one a Brachyury homologue and the other related to Tbx3-4-5

from chordates; the former appears to be involved in axis formation. A

Forkhead homologue has also been recovered from sponges and is

apparently active in early morphogenetic cell movements. Among the

homeodomain genes, a paired-class gene (Pax-2/5/8) and LIM and Iroquois

transcription factors have been isolated and the available information

suggests they are expressed in specific tissue regions. The identification of a

frizzled gene, a receptor in the Wnt pathway, and other components has

demonstrated that the Wnt signalling pathways is involved in cell

specification and morphogenesis. The cell-cell and cell-matrix adhesion

molecules include receptor tyrosine kinases, but cell adhesion is a

prerequisite for immunity. The sponge immune system contains Ig-like

molecules and pathways similar to deuterostomes, but not protostomes. (This

The Developmental Origins of Animal Bodyplans


is an interesting pattern that we will see repeatedly, with closer affinities

between pre-bilaterians and deuterostomes than with protostomes.)

Apopotosis (programmed cell death) also occurs among sponges, with

molecules identified that are similar to tumor necrosis factor-α and caspases.

Müller et al. (2004) proposed a model for the appearance of the

urmetazoan in which the critical evolutionary innovation was the

construction of cell-cell and cell-matrix adhesion systems. This allowed cell

aggregates to form and signal transduction facilitated cell differentiation and

specialization. The addition of an immune system, apopototic machinery

and the initial transcription factors permitted homeostasis and furthered

differentiation of a body axis. Müller et al. do not consider the

developmental data from choanoflagellates, but the presence of cell adhesion

factors and the diversity of tyrosine kinases (King et al., 2003) is generally

consistent with the Müller hypothesis.

Figure 2. Major developmental innovations leading to the origin of bilateria, emphasizing

features shared with sponges, cnidarians and acoel flatworms. See text for discussion.


Cnidarian Development

In contrast to the situation with sponges, there is a wealth of new

developmental data on cnidarians and this greatly aids in defining the



patterns of metazoan innovation. Four taxa have received the bulk of the

attention from developmental biologists: the sea anemone Nematostella

vectensis; the coral Acropora millepora; the freshwater hydrozoan Hydra

(for which there is the least information); and the colonial marine hydroid

Podocoryne carnea (see Ball et al., 2004 for discussion of all four model

organisms). The two anthozoans (Nematostella and Acropora) are of the

most interest as representatives of the phylogenetically basal class. There is a

surprising diversity of highly conserved bilaterian developmental genes

among the Cnidaria. This has led to controversy over whether cnidarians are

more complex than they appear, and perhaps even secondarily simplified

from a bilaterian ancestor (although 18S rRNA analysis provide no support

for such simplification: Collins, 2002). The more realistic alternative is that

in many cases these conserved developmental elements serve a more

primitive function in cnidarians, and new or enhanced functions have

appeared among the Bilateria (Ball et al., 2004). Examination of cnidarian

development thus serves an important cautionary role for later discussions

on the extent to which true functional conservation applies among the


Among the most important bilaterian cell signalling factors are those of

the Wnt family, which control cell fate. Bilaterians have twelve known

subfamilies, and Kusserow et al. (2005) have now reported the presence of

all twelve from the sea anemone N. vectensis. Gene expression studies reveal

a pattern of overlapping expression along the oral-aboral axis of the

cnidarian planula, with five genes expressed in the ectodermal cells and

another three in the endoderm. Two other Wnt genes are expressed only in

particular cells, which Kusserow et al. suggest indicates a role in cell-type

specification. Wnt expression near the blastopore may indicate pre-bilaterian

evolution of this function. Taken together, this suggests an ancestral role of

the Wnt genes in gastrulation and axis differentiation, surprisingly similar to

patterns of Hox gene expression in bilaterians. (See also Wikramanayake et

al., 2003 on the role of β-catenin in Wnt signalling of Nematostella and

Steele, 2002 for a review of the role of Wnt in Hydra development.) Caution

must be used in reaching such a conclusion as Wnt genes have multiple roles

in different animals.

Other signalling pathways present in cnidarians include elements of the

TGF-β superfamily, Notch, and Hedgehog and many of the downstream

receptors and other components (e.g. Galliot, 2000; Steele, 2002; see

summary in Technau et al., 2005). Thus all four of the major bilaterian

developmental signalling pathways are present in cnidarians although the

extent to which their functions are similar remains incompletely explored.

The extent of genetic complexity of cnidarians is also illustrated by a recent

expressed sequence tag (EST) study that showed that between 1.3% and

The Developmental Origins of Animal Bodyplans


2.7% (depending on the criteria used) of Acropora and Nematostella genes

were shared with fungi, plants, protists and other non-metazoan clades

(Technau et al., 2005). Assuming that these are not false positives due to

contamination, these results suggest that bilaterians actually lost many genes

present in ancestral metazoans.

This apparent loss of genes is a point worth emphasizing. Most

biologists have tended to assume that genomic and developmental

complexity increased in concert with the increases in metazoan morphologic

complexity. The molecular studies discussed here suggest that there was an

increase in regulatory specialization and a diversification of particular

regulatory pathways to produce the additional morphologic complexity,

there was also a loss of other regulatory systems found in other eukaryotic


Understanding the axial patterning systems of cnidarians and their

relationship to axial patterning among bilaterians is critical to reconstructing

the early evolution of animal body plans. A homologue of the homeobox

gene Otx, which is involved in head formation in bilaterians, has been

recovered from jellyfish (Müller et al., 1999) and hydra (Smith et al., 1999;

see also Galliot and Miller, 2000). Cnidarians of course do not have a head,

and in Cnidaria the genes seem to be involved in regional specification and

cell movement, providing an important example of a setting where function

does not appear to have been conserved from cnidarians. Cnidarians possess

simple Hox and ParaHox clusters (Yanze et al., 2001), with a single anteriorclass and a single posterior-class gene in each cluster. In Nematostella the

five Hox genes are expressed in an overlapping, staggered pattern along the

oral-aboral axis, reminiscent of bilaterians and supporting suggestions that

Hox genes are involved in anterior-posterior patterning (Finnerty, 2003;

Finnerty et al., 2004). In addition, Finnerty et al. found that dpp was

initially expressed asymmetrically near the blastopore before encircling it.

Dpp is also widely but asymmetrically expressed in ectoderm. These dpp

expression patterns are similar to those in bilaterians where it specifies

dorsal-ventral axis formation. Taken together, the Hox and dpp expression

patterns suggest that some degree of axis specification was present in the

ancestor of bilaterians and cnidarians. Finnerty et al., (2004) suggest that this

animal may itself have been bilaterally symmetrical. Interesting supporting

results come from a report by Groger and Schmid (2001) describing the

nerve net of Podocoryne which develops from anterior to posterior in a

serially repeated fashion. This also suggests that at least some elements of

A/P development were present in the cnidarian-bilaterian ancestor. The

difficulty, as many authors have pointed out, is that it is far from clear that

the oral-aboral axis of Cnidaria is truly homologous to the A/P axis of

bilaterians (see discussion in Finnerty, 2003). The best evidence in support



of this claim comes from the Hox and dpp expression patterns, but the issue

remains unresolved.

One of the key characteristics of bilaterians is the presence of mesoderm,

which arguably allowed far greater architectural diversity among triploblasts

than is possible with only two tissue layers. In Podocoryne, Spring et al.

(2002) studied the expression of homologues of Brachyury, Mef2 and snail,

all genes involved in bilaterian mesoderm formation. Cnidarian smooth and

striated muscle cells in the medusa stage derive from the entocodon, and

Spring et al.’s results are consistent with the entocodon being the

evoluionary source for mesoderm. Martindale et al., (2004) examined the

expression in Nematostella of seven genes whose bilaterian homologues are

involved in mesoderm formation and in the specification of cell types

associated with mesoderm. Six genes (twist, snailA, snailB, forkhead, and

GATA and LIM transcription factors) are restricted to endoderm; mef2 is

expressed in ectoderm. This suggests the genes are involved in germ-layer

specification and that bilaterian endoderm and mesoderm are derived from

diploblastic endoderm. From these results we can infer that the cnidarianbilaterian ancestor at least possessed smooth and striated muscles derived

from diploblastic ectoderm endoderm; these likely were the evolutionary

precursor for bilaterian mesoderm. However, molecular evidence that

anthozoans are the oldest clade within the cnidarians (e.g., Collins, 2002)

raises difficulties for interpreting the evidence from Podocoryne, and

suggests the similarities to bilaterian mesoderm could be due to convergence

(Ball et al., 2004). Technau and Scholz (2003), writing before publication of

the data from Nematostella, argued that the role of these genes in the

urmetazoan was in cell proliferation, adhesion and motility.

The cubozoan jellyfish Tripedalia cytosphora has both lens-containing

eyes and simple photoreceptors on stalks beneath the bell, raising interesting

questions about developmental similarities to bilaterian eyes. As will be

discussed in greater detail in Section 3.4, comparative studies between

Drosophila and vertebrates have shown that a member of the paired

homeobox family of transcription factors, Pax6, appears to be responsible

for eye formation. Piatigorsky and Kozmik (2004) were not able to isolate

Pax6 from T. cytosphora, but did recover PaxB (one of four Pax genes

known to occur in cnidarians: see Miller et al., 2000). PaxB appears to

represent the ancestral metazoan representative of the Pax genes, and has

been linked to regulation of lens crystallin, the proteins responsible for the

optical nature of the lens in cnidarians. The Pax genes of bilaterians

evidently evolved from PaxB via gene duplication and subsequent

divergence of function. Piatigorsky and Kozmik (2004) also suggest that

PaxB is more generally related to control of formation of mechanoreceptors,

including the ancestor of the ear. Pax2/5/8, along with Pax6 a descendent of

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