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Evol Dev. 2004 Jul-Aug;6(4):227-36.

On the origin of the chordate central nervous system: expression of onecut in the sea urchin embryo.

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  • 1Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics, Department of Vertebrate Genomics, Evolution and Development Group, Ihnestrasse 73, 14195 Berlin, Germany. poustka@molgen.mpg.de


We identified a transcription factor of the onecut class in the sea urchin Strongylocentrotus purpuratus that represents an ortholog of the mammalian gene HNF6, the founding member of the onecut class of proteins. The isolated sea urchin gene, named SpOnecut, encodes a protein of 483 amino acids with one cut domain and a homeodomain. Phylogenetic analysis clearly places the sea urchin gene into this family, most closely related to the ascidian onecut gene HNF-6. Nevertheless, phylogenetic analysis reveals a difficult phylogeny indicating that certain members of the family evolve more rapidly than others and also that the cut domain and homeodomain evolve at a different pace. In fly, worm, ascidian, and teleost fish, the onecut genes isolated so far are exclusively expressed in cells of the central nervous system (CNS), whereas in mammals the two copies of the gene have acquired additional functions in liver and pancreas development. In the sea urchin embryo, expression is first detected in the emerging ciliary band at the late blastula stage. During the gastrula stage, expression is limited to the ciliary band. In the early pluteus stage, SpOnecut is expressed at the apical organ and the elongating arms but continues most prominently in the ciliary band. This is the first gene known that exclusively marks the ciliary band and therein the apical organ in a pluteus larva, whereas chordate orthologs execute essential functions in dorsal CNS development. The significance of this finding for the hypothesis that the ciliary bands and apical organs of the hypothetical "dipleurula"-like chordate ancestor and the chordate/vertebrate CNS are of common origin is discussed.

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