From "the Worm" to "the Worms" and Back Again: The Evolutionary Developmental Biology of Nematodes

Genetics. 2018 Oct;210(2):397-433. doi: 10.1534/genetics.118.300243.


Since the earliest days of research on nematodes, scientists have noted the developmental and morphological variation that exists within and between species. As various cellular and developmental processes were revealed through intense focus on Caenorhabditis elegans, these comparative studies have expanded. Within the genus Caenorhabditis, they include characterization of intraspecific polymorphisms and comparisons of distinct species, all generally amenable to the same laboratory culture methods and supported by robust genomic and experimental tools. The C. elegans paradigm has also motivated studies with more distantly related nematodes and animals. Combined with improved phylogenies, this work has led to important insights about the evolution of nematode development. First, while many aspects of C. elegans development are representative of Caenorhabditis, and of terrestrial nematodes more generally, others vary in ways both obvious and cryptic. Second, the system has revealed several clear examples of developmental flexibility in achieving a particular trait. This includes developmental system drift, in which the developmental control of homologous traits has diverged in different lineages, and cases of convergent evolution. Overall, the wealth of information and experimental techniques developed in C. elegans is being leveraged to make nematodes a powerful system for evolutionary cellular and developmental biology.

Keywords: C. elegans; WormBook; connectome; developmental systems drift; embryo; evolution; gene regulatory network; sex determination; sperm; vulva.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / embryology*
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / genetics
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental
  • Morphogenesis*