The role of G protein-coupled receptors in the early evolution of neurotransmission and the nervous system

J Exp Biol. 2015 Feb 15;218(Pt 4):562-71. doi: 10.1242/jeb.110312.


The origin and evolution of the nervous system is one of the most intriguing and enigmatic events in biology. The recent sequencing of complete genomes from early metazoan organisms provides a new platform to study the origins of neuronal gene families. This review explores the early metazoan expansion of the largest integral transmembrane protein family, the G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), which serve as molecular targets for a large subset of neurotransmitters and neuropeptides in higher animals. GPCR repertories from four pre-bilaterian metazoan genomes were compared. This includes the cnidarian Nematostella vectensis and the ctenophore Mnemiopsis leidyi, which have primitive nervous systems (nerve nets), the demosponge Amphimedon queenslandica and the placozoan Trichoplax adhaerens, which lack nerve and muscle cells. Comparative genomics demonstrate that the rhodopsin and glutamate receptor families, known to be involved in neurotransmission in higher animals are also widely found in pre-bilaterian metazoans and possess substantial expansions of rhodopsin-family-like GPCRs. Furthermore, the emerging knowledge on the functions of adhesion GPCRs in the vertebrate nervous system provides a platform to examine possible analogous roles of their closest homologues in pre-bilaterians. Intriguingly, the presence of molecular components required for GPCR-mediated neurotransmission in pre-bilaterians reveals that they exist in both primitive nervous systems and nerve-cell-free environments, providing essential comparative models to better understand the origins of the nervous system and neurotransmission.

Keywords: Evolution; GPCR; Nerve net; Neuron; Synapse.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution
  • Genome
  • Genomics
  • Invertebrates / genetics
  • Invertebrates / physiology*
  • Nervous System Physiological Phenomena
  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled / physiology*
  • Rhodopsin / metabolism
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology*


  • Receptors, G-Protein-Coupled
  • Rhodopsin