Introduction: Traditionally, the origin of the third germ layer and its special formation of coelomic cavities by enterocoely is regarded to be an informative character in phylogenetic analyses. In early deuterostomes such as sea urchins, the mesoderm forms through a single evagination pinching off from the apical end of the archenteron which then gives off mesocoela and metacoela on each side. This echinoid-type coelom formation has conventionally been assumed to be ancestral for Deuterostomia. However, recent phylogenetic analyses show that Echinodermata hold a more derived position within Deuterostomia. In this regard a subgroup of Hemichordata, namely enteropneusts, seem to host promising candidates, because they are supposed to have retained many ancestral deuterostome features on the one hand, and furthermore share some characteristics with chordates on the other hand. In enteropneusts a wide range of different modes of coelom formation has been reported and in many cases authors of the original observations carefully detailed the limitations of their descriptions, while these doubts disappeared in subsequent reviews. In the present study, we investigated the development of all tissues in an enteropneust, Saccoglossus kowalevskii by using modern morphological techniques such as complete serial sectioning for LM and TEM, and 3D-reconstructions, in order to contribute new data to the elucidation of deuterostome evolution.
Results: Our data show that in the enteropneust S. kowalevskii all main coelomic cavities (single protocoel, paired mesocoela and metacoela) derive from the endoderm via enterocoely as separate evaginations, in contrast to the aforementioned echinoid-type. The anlagen of the first pair of gill slits emerge at the late kink stage (~96 h pf). From that time onwards, we documented a temporal left-first development of the gill slits and skeletal gill rods in S. kowalevskii until the 2 gill slit juvenile stage.
Conclusions: The condition of coelom formation from separate evaginations is recapitulated in the larva of amphioxus and can be observed in crinoid echinoderms in a similar way. Therefore, coelom formation from separated pouches, rather than from a single apical pouch with eventual subdivision is suggested as the ancestral type of coelom formation for Deuterostomia. Left-right asymmetries are also present in echinoderms (rudiment formation), cephalochordates (larval development), tunicates (gut coiling) and vertebrates (visceral organs), and it is known from other studies applying molecular genetic analyses that genes such as nodal, lefty and pitx are involved during development. We discuss our findings in S. kowalevskii in the light of morphological as well as molecular genetic data.