More than 550 million years ago, chordates originated from a common ancestor shared with nonchordate deuterostomes by developing a novel type of larva, the "tadpole larva." The notochord is the supporting organ of the larval tail and the most prominent feature of chordates; indeed, phylum Chordata is named after this organ. In this review, we discuss the molecular mechanisms involved in the formation of the notochord over the course of chordate evolution with a special emphasis on a member of T-box gene family, Brachyury. Comparison of the decoded genome of a unicellular choanoflagellate with the genomes of sponge and cnidarians suggests that T-box gene family arose at the time of the evolution of multicellular animals. Gastrulation is a morphogenetic movement that is essential for the formation of two- or three-germ-layered embryos. Brachyury is transiently expressed in the blastopore (bp) region, where it confers on cells the ability to undergo invagination. This process is involved in the formation of the archenteron in all metazoans. This is a "primary" function of Brachyury. During the evolution of chordates, Brachyury gained an additional expression domain at the dorsal midline region of the bp. In this new expression domain, Brachyury served its "secondary" function, recruiting another set of target genes to form a dorsal axial organ, notochord. The Wnt/β-catenin, BMP/Nodal, and FGF-signaling pathways are involved in the transcriptional activation of Brachyury. We discuss the molecular mechanisms of Brachyury secondary function in the context of the dorsal-ventral (D-V) inversion theory and the aboral-dorsalization hypothesis. Although the scope of this review requires some degree of oversimplification of Brachyury function, it is beneficial to facilitate studies on the notochord formation, a central evolutionary developmental biology problem in the history of metazoan evolution, pointed out first by Alexander Kowalevsky.
© 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.