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Anat Rec (Hoboken). 2009 Nov;292(11):1780-800. doi: 10.1002/ar.20960.

Embryonic development and skeletogenesis of the pharyngeal jaw apparatus in the cichlid Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus).

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  • 1Department of Biology, East Carolina University, Howell Science Complex, Greenville, NC, USA.


The evolution of a specialized pharyngeal jaw apparatus (PJA) has been argued to be the key evolutionary innovation that allowed the explosive adaptive radiation of cichlid fishes in East African lakes. Subsequent studies together with recent molecular phylogenies have shown that similar innovations evolved independently several times within the teleosts, which poses the questions: (1) how similar are the developmental mechanisms responsible for these changes in divergent taxa and (2) how did such complex features arise independently in evolution? A detailed knowledge of PJA development in cichlids and other teleosts is needed to address these questions. Here, we provide a detailed account of the development of the PJA in one species of cichlid, the Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus), from the early segmentation and patterning of its embryonic precursors - pharyngeal arches 3 to 7 - to its ossification. We find that pharyngeal segmentation occurs sequentially from anterior to posterior during early segmentation stages through the mid-pharyngula period. We show a clear combinatorial code of Hox gene expression such that each posterior arch is defined by a distinctive Hox signature. Posterior arch chondrogenesis in tilapia is essentially complete by the end of the hatching period, and most elements become ossified over the next two days. Our results reveal that both the fusion of lower jaw bones and articulation between the neurocranium and upper jaws occur during post-embryonic development.

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