The tadpole larva of ascidians, basal living relatives of vertebrates, has a chordate body plan. The CNS has many homologies with that of vertebrates yet only about 100 neurons. These few, possibly fixed in number and composition, nevertheless govern a diverse repertoire of behaviors. To elucidate the circuits of the CNS first requires that we recognize each neuron type, for which we used electroporation to transfect precleavage embryos with a plasmid containing green fluorescent protein (GFP) driven by the promoter of the synaptotagmin gene. Hatched larvae were fixed and GFP 3-D reconstructions of confocal image stacks compiled into images of 31 whole or partial larvae, either with many GFP-labelled neurons or with few, each clearly visible. Neuron counts in the sensory vesicle (SV) and visceral ganglion (VG) indicated that between 75% (SV) and 69% (VG) of previously reported numbers of neurons were transfected. Based on their position, shape, and projections, the following neurons were identified in the SV: a prominent eminens neuron, possibly with direct input from papillar neurons, a large ventroposterior interneuron, photoreceptors of the ocellus, and putative antenna cells of the otolith. In the VG, we identified at least four subtypes of motor neuron, including an ovoid cell that may innervate distal tail muscle cells and contrapelo cells with ascending projections, unique among VG neurons. The caudal nerve cord contained the first reported neurons, the somata of planate neurons. These neurons are the first identified types, and will be used to construct a map of the nervous system for this model basal chordate.
2007 Wiley-Liss, Inc.