Background: Numerous phylogenetic analyses on polychaete annelids suggest a taxon Capitellida that comprises the three families Maldanidae, Arenicolidae and Capitellidae. Recent molecular studies support the position of the Echiura, traditionally ranked as a separate phylum, within the capitellids. In order to test the robustness of this molecular-based hypothesis we take a different approach using comparative analyses of nervous and muscle system development in the maldanid Axiothella rubrocincta. Employing immunocytochemistry in combination with confocal laserscanning microscopy, we broaden the database on capitellid organogenesis, thereby incorporating classical histological data in our analysis. Besides assessing possible shared features with the echiurans, we also discuss the variability of neural and muscular characters within the Capitellida.
Results: The scaffold of the adult central nervous system, which is already established in early developmental stages of Axiothella, consists of cerebral commissures that give rise to simple circumesophageal connectives with fused ventral and dorsal roots and a single ventral neurite bundle. From the latter arise segmental neurites that innervate the peripheral bodywall. Since there is no observable regular pattern, and individual neurites are lost during ontogeny, their exact arrangement remains elusive. The pharynx is encircled by a prominent stomatogastric nerve ring, with a pair of anterior and lateral proboscis neurites directly connecting it to the central nervous system. One pair of ventral and one pair of dorsal longitudinal muscles form the earliest rudiments of the bodywall musculature in late larval stages, while a continuous layer of circular muscles is lacking throughout ontogeny.
Conclusions: Comparative neurodevelopmental analysis of capitellid and echiuran species reveals several common characters, including simple circumesophageal connectives, a single fused ventral nerve strand, and a stomatogastric ring nerve, that support a close relationship of both taxa, thus corroborating recent molecular phylogenetic analyses. The data on myogenesis show that four longitudinal muscle bands most likely represent an ancestral character not only for the Capitellida, but for the Annelida in general. Whether or not circular muscles are part of the annelid groundpattern remains uncertain.