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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. Oct 29, 2001; 356(1414): 1533–1544.
PMCID: PMC1088534

Developmental genetic evidence for a monophyletic origin of the bilaterian brain.

Abstract

The widely held notion of an independent evolutionary origin of invertebrate and vertebrate brains is based on classical phylogenetic, neuroanatomical and embryological data. The interpretation of these data in favour of a polyphyletic origin of animals brains is currently being challenged by three fundamental findings that derive from comparative molecular, genetic and developmental analyses. First, modern molecular systematics indicates that none of the extant animals correspond to evolutionary intermediates between the protostomes and the deuterostomes, thus making it impossible to deduce the morphological organization of the ancestral bilaterian or its brain from living species. Second, recent molecular genetic evidence for the body axis inversion hypothesis now supports the idea that the basic body plan of vertebrates and invertebrates is similar but inverted, suggesting that the ventral nerve chord of protostome invertebrates is homologous to the dorsal nerve cord of deuterostome chordates. Third, a developmental genetic analysis of the molecular control elements involved in early embryonic brain patterning is uncovering the existence of structurally and functionally homologous genes that have comparable and interchangeable functions in key aspects of brain development in invertebrate and vertebrate model systems. All three of these findings are compatible with the hypothesis of a monophyletic origin of the bilaterian brain. Here we review these findings and consider their significance and implications for current thinking on the evolutionary origin of bilaterian brains. We also preview the impact of comparative functional genomic analyses on our understanding of brain evolution.

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