Nitric oxide acts as a positive regulator to induce metamorphosis of the ascidian Herdmania momus

PLoS One. 2013 Sep 3;8(9):e72797. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0072797. eCollection 2013.


Marine invertebrates commonly have a biphasic life cycle in which the metamorphic transition from a pelagic larva to a benthic post-larva is mediated by the nitric oxide signalling pathway. Nitric oxide (NO) is synthesised by nitric oxide synthase (NOS), which is a client protein of the molecular chaperon heat shock protein 90 (HSP90). It is notable, then, that both NO and HSP90 have been implicated in regulating metamorphosis in marine invertebrates as diverse as urochordates, echinoderms, molluscs, annelids, and crustaceans. Specifically, the suppression of NOS activity by the application of either NOS- or HSP90-inhibiting pharmacological agents has been shown consistently to induce the initiation of metamorphosis, leading to the hypothesis that a negative regulatory role of NO is widely conserved in biphasic life cycles. Further, the induction of metamorphosis by heat-shock has been demonstrated for multiple species. Here, we investigate the regulatory role of NO in induction of metamorphosis of the solitary tropical ascidian, Herdmania momus. By coupling pharmacological treatments with analysis of HmNOS and HmHSP90 gene expression, we present compelling evidence of a positive regulatory role for NO in metamorphosis of this species, in contrast to all existing ascidian data that supports the hypothesis of NO as a conserved negative regulator of metamorphosis. The exposure of competent H. momus larvae to a NOS inhibitor or an NO donor results in an up-regulation of NOS and HSP90 genes. Heat shock of competent larvae induces metamorphosis in a temperature dependent manner, up to a thermal tolerance that approaches 35°C. Both larval/post-larval survival and the appearance of abnormal morphologies in H. momus post-larvae reflect the magnitude of up-regulation of the HSP90 gene in response to heat-shock. The demonstrated role of NO as a positive metamorphic regulator in H. momus suggests the existence of inter-specific adaptations of NO regulation in ascidian metamorphosis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Gene Expression
  • HSP90 Heat-Shock Proteins / genetics
  • Hot Temperature
  • Metamorphosis, Biological / physiology*
  • Nitric Oxide / physiology*
  • Nitric Oxide Synthase / genetics
  • Urochordata / genetics
  • Urochordata / growth & development*


  • HSP90 Heat-Shock Proteins
  • Nitric Oxide
  • Nitric Oxide Synthase

Grant support

This work has been funded by grant number DP110104601 from the Australian Research Council ( to SMD, and was conducted while NU held an Endeavour International Postgraduate Research Scholarship provided by Australian Government. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.