The development of the notochord involves a complex set of cellular behaviors. While these morphogenic behaviors are common to all chordates, the ascidian provides a particularly attractive experimental model because of its relative simplicity. In particular, all notochord morphogenesis in ascidians takes place with only 40 cells, as opposed to the hundreds of cells in vertebrate model systems. Initial steps in ascidian notochord development convert a monolayer of epithelial-like cells in the pregastrula embryo to a cylindrical rod of single-cell diameter. Convergent extension is responsible for the intercalation of notochord cells and some degree of notochord elongation, while a second phase of elongation is observed as the notochord narrows medially and increases in volume. The mechanism by which the volume of the notochord increases differs between ascidian species. Some ascidians produce extracellular pockets that will eventually coalesce to form a lumen running the length of the notochord; whereas others do not. By either mechanism, the resulting notochord serves as a hydrostatic skeleton allowing for the locomotion of the swimming larva. Several basic cell behaviors, such as cell shape changes, cell rearrangement, establishment of cell polarity, and alteration of extracellular environment, are displayed in the process of notochord morphogenesis. Modern analysis of ascidian notochord morphogenesis promises to contribute to our understanding of these fundamental biological processes.
Copyright 2007 Wiley-Liss, Inc.