Highly distinct genetic programs for peripheral nervous system formation in chordates

BMC Biol. 2022 Jun 27;20(1):152. doi: 10.1186/s12915-022-01355-7.


Background: Vertebrates develop their peripheral nervous system (PNS) from transient unique embryonic structures, the neural crest, and the ectodermal placodes that are located at the border of the forming central nervous system. By contrast, in the invertebrate chordates, amphioxus and ascidians, a large part of the PNS originates at the opposite of the embryo, in the ventral ectoderm. In both groups, a biphasic mechanism regulates ventral PNS formation: high BMP levels specify a neurogenic territory within which glutamatergic epidermal sensory neuron formation is controlled by the Notch pathway. Given these similarities and the phylogenetic relationships within chordates, it is likely that ventral PNS is an ancestral feature in chordates and that it has been lost in vertebrates.

Results: In order to get insights into the molecular control of ventral PNS formation and to test the hypothesis of their homology and potential contribution to the emergence of vertebrate PNS, we undertook a close comparison of ventral PNS formation in the ascidian Phallusia mammillata and the amphioxus Branchiostoma lanceolatum. Using timed RNA-seq series, we identified novel markers of the ventral PNS during different phases of its development in both species. By extensively determining the expression of paralogous and orthologous genes, we observed that only a minority of genes have a shared expression in the ventral PNS. However, a large fraction of ventral PNS orthologous genes are expressed in the dorsally forming PNS of vertebrates.

Conclusions: Our work has significantly increased the molecular characterization of ventral PNS formation in invertebrate chordates. The low observed conservation of gene expression in the ventral PNS suggests that the amphioxus and ascidian ventral PNS are either not homologous, or alternatively extensive drift has occurred in their regulatory mechanisms following a long period (600 My) of separate evolution and accelerated evolution in the ascidian lineage. The homology to genes expressed in the dorsally forming PNS of vertebrates suggests that ancestral sensory neurons gene networks have been redeployed in vertebrates.

Keywords: Amphioxus; Ascidian; Chordates; EvoDevo; Gene regulatory network; Peripheral nervous system; sensory neurons.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Ectoderm
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental
  • Lancelets* / genetics
  • Peripheral Nervous System
  • Phylogeny
  • Urochordata* / genetics
  • Vertebrates / genetics