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Integr Comp Biol. 2008 Nov;48(5):620-9. doi: 10.1093/icb/icn012. Epub 2008 Apr 4.

Head organization and the head/trunk relationship in protochordates: problems and prospects.

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Biology Department, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada, V8W-3N5.


The fossil record has been an invaluable aid for reconstructing the major events of vertebrate evolution. There is no comparable record for protochordates, however, which severely limits our knowledge of their ancestral morphology, habits, and mode of life. The alternative is inference based on an interpretation of living protochordates but this is fraught with problems, not least being our own biases of what we think an ancestral chordate ought to look like. Relevant to the present symposium is the problem of head/trunk relationships and whether or not the myotomes of the trunk originally extended into the head in vertebrates. I will review what is currently known of patterns of innervation in tunicates and amphioxus in relation to Romer's somaticovisceral concept of the vertebrate body to show how little progress has been made in resolving this problem. There are, in contrast, surprisingly good prospects for solving some other puzzles concerning chordate origins. Dorsoventral inversion provides a good example. A consensus is now emerging, based largely on molecular data from hemichordates that casts new light on the asymmetry of the head in amphioxus. Specifically, the morphogenetic growth process that reestablishes symmetry in late-stage larvae can now be seen, at least in part, as a recapitulation of past evolutionary events, and this has important implications for the origin and basic organization of the brain.


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