Identifying the molecular fingerprint of organismal cell types is key for understanding their function and evolution. Here, we use single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-seq) to survey the cell types of the sea urchin early pluteus larva, representing an important developmental transition from non-feeding to feeding larva. We identify 21 distinct cell clusters, representing cells of the digestive, skeletal, immune, and nervous systems. Further subclustering of these reveal a highly detailed portrait of cell diversity across the larva, including the identification of neuronal cell types. We then validate important gene regulatory networks driving sea urchin development and reveal new domains of activity within the larval body. Focusing on neurons that co-express Pdx-1 and Brn1/2/4, we identify an unprecedented number of genes shared by this population of neurons in sea urchin and vertebrate endocrine pancreatic cells. Using differential expression results from Pdx-1 knockdown experiments, we show that Pdx1 is necessary for the acquisition of the neuronal identity of these cells. We hypothesize that a network similar to the one orchestrated by Pdx1 in the sea urchin neurons was active in an ancestral cell type and then inherited by neuronal and pancreatic developmental lineages in sea urchins and vertebrates.
Keywords: Pdx1; developmental biology; evolutionary biology; gene regulatory networks; larval cell types; neuronal complexity; sea urchin; strongylocentrotus purpuratus.
© 2021, Paganos et al.