Xenacoelomorpha is, most probably, a monophyletic group that includes three clades: Acoela, Nemertodermatida and Xenoturbellida. The group still has contentious phylogenetic affinities; though most authors place it as the sister group of the remaining bilaterians, some would include it as a fourth phylum within the Deuterostomia. Over the past few years, our group, along with others, has undertaken a systematic study of the microscopic anatomy of these worms; our main aim is to understand the structure and development of the nervous system. This research plan has been aided by the use of molecular/developmental tools, the most important of which has been the sequencing of the complete genomes and transcriptomes of different members of the three clades. The data obtained has been used to analyse the evolutionary history of gene families and to study their expression patterns during development, in both space and time. A major focus of our research is the origin of 'cephalized' (centralized) nervous systems. How complex brains are assembled from simpler neuronal arrays has been a matter of intense debate for at least 100 years. We are now tackling this issue using Xenacoelomorpha models. These represent an ideal system for this work because the members of the three clades have nervous systems with different degrees of cephalization; from the relatively simple sub-epithelial net of Xenoturbella to the compact brain of acoels. How this process of 'progressive' cephalization is reflected in the genomes or transcriptomes of these three groups of animals is the subject of this paper.
Keywords: Acoela; Acoelomorpha; Evolution; GPCR; Neural system; Symsagittifera; Xenoturbella; bHLH; cephalization.
© 2015. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd.