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Bioessays. 2001 Feb;23(2):142-51.

Origin and early evolution of the vertebrates: new insights from advances in molecular biology, anatomy, and palaeontology.

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Division of Marine Biology, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, La Jolla, CA 92093-0202, USA.


Recent advances in molecular biology and microanatomy have supported homologies of body parts between vertebrates and extant invertebrate chordates, thus providing insights into the body plan of the proximate ancestor of the vertebrates. For example, this ancestor probably had a relatively complex brain and a precursor of definitive neural crest. Additional insights into early vertebrate evolution have come from recent discoveries of Lower Cambrian soft body fossils of Haikouichthys and Myllokunmingia (almost certainly vertebrates, possibly related to modern lampreys) and Yunnanozoon and Haikouella (evidently stem-group vertebrates). The earliest vertebrates had an unequivocally marine origin, probably evolved mineralised pharyngeal denticles before the dermal skeleton, and evidently utilised elastic recoil of the visceral arch skeleton for suction feeding. Moreover, the new data emphasise that the advent of definitive neural crest was supremely important for the evolutionary origin of the vertebrates.

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