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PLoS One. 2009 Jun 12;4(6):e5887. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005887.

A standard system to study vertebrate embryos.

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Paläontologisches Museum und Institut der Universität Zürich, Zürich, Switzerland.


Staged embryonic series are important as reference for different kinds of biological studies. I summarise problems that occur when using 'staging tables' of 'model organisms'. Investigations of developmental processes in a broad scope of taxa are becoming commonplace. Beginning in the 1990s, methods were developed to quantify and analyse developmental events in a phylogenetic framework. The algorithms associated with these methods are still under development, mainly due to difficulties of using non-independent characters. Nevertheless, the principle of comparing clearly defined newly occurring morphological features in development (events) in quantifying analyses was a key innovation for comparative embryonic research. Up to date no standard was set for how to define such events in a comparative approach. As a case study I compared the external development of 23 land vertebrate species with a focus on turtles, mainly based on reference staging tables. I excluded all the characters that are only identical for a particular species or general features that were only analysed in a few species. Based on these comparisons I defined 104 developmental characters that are common either for all vertebrates (61 characters), gnathostomes (26), tetrapods (3), amniotes (7), or only for sauropsids (7). Characters concern the neural tube, somite, ear, eye, limb, maxillary and mandibular process, pharyngeal arch, eyelid or carapace development. I present an illustrated guide listing all the defined events. This guide can be used for describing developmental series of any vertebrate species or for documenting specimen variability of a particular species. The guide incorporates drawings and photographs as well as consideration of species identifying developmental features such as colouration. The simple character-code of the guide is extendable to further characters pertaining to external and internal morphological, physiological, genetic or molecular development, and also for other vertebrate groups not examined here, such as Chondrichthyes or Actinopterygii. An online database to type in developmental events for different stages and species could be a basis for further studies in comparative embryology. By documenting developmental events with the standard code, sequence heterochrony studies (i.e. Parsimov) and studies on variability can use this broad comparative data set.

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