Embryonic axis specification in nematodes: evolution of the first step in development

Curr Biol. 1998 Jan 29;8(3):157-60. doi: 10.1016/s0960-9822(98)70062-4.


In 1828, von Baer proposed that the early stages of development must be the most conserved [1]. Others have since countered that the middle stages of development are the most conserved [2]. To address whether the earliest step in pattern formation can evolve, we have examined how asymmetry along the antero-posterior (AP) axis is generated in various nematode species. AP asymmetry is specified in Caenorhabditis elegans at fertilization by the sperm, which directs a cytoplasmic rearrangement that segregates critical factors such as the P granules to one side of the uncleaved embryo [3,4]. We found that AP asymmetry is generated differently in another nematode species: the sperm is not used to specify AP asymmetry, there are no signs of cytoplasmic movements, and P granules are segregated differently. Despite these differences, development from the two-cell stage is remarkably similar in the two species. We have reconstructed the evolutionary history of these mechanisms by analyzing the development of 30 nematode species and mapping the results onto a molecular phylogeny of the nematodes [5]. The results suggest that a new mechanism for axis specification evolved in an ancestor of some of the relatives of C. elegans. We conclude that this fundamental step in development can evolve without affecting other aspects of development.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Caenorhabditis elegans / embryology*
  • Embryo, Nonmammalian / ultrastructure
  • Male
  • Morphogenesis
  • Nematoda / classification
  • Nematoda / embryology
  • Phylogeny
  • Species Specificity
  • Spermatozoa / ultrastructure
  • Zygote / ultrastructure