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Evodevo. 2011 Sep 20;2(1):18. doi: 10.1186/2041-9139-2-18.

Evolution of embryonic development in nematodes.

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University of Cologne, Biocenter, Zuelpicher Str, 47b 50967 Köln, Germany.



Nematodes can be subdivided into basal Enoplea (clades 1 and 2) and more derived Chromadorea (clades 3 to 12). Embryogenesis of Caenorhabditis elegans (clade 9) has been analyzed in most detail. Their establishment of polarity and asymmetric cleavage requires the differential localization of PAR proteins. Earlier studies on selected other nematodes revealed that embryonic development of nematodes is more diverse than the essentially invariant development of C. elegans and the classic study object Ascaris had suggested. To obtain a more detailed picture of variations and evolutionary trends we compared embryonic cell lineages and pattern formation in embryos of all 12 nematode clades.


The study was conducted using 4-D microscopy and 3-D modeling of developing embryos.


We found dramatic differences compared to C. elegans in Enoplea but also considerable variations among Chromadorea. We discovered 'Polarity Organizing Centers' (POCs) that orient cleavage spindles along the anterior-posterior axis in distinct cells over consecutive cell generations. The resulting lineally arranged blastomeres represent a starting point for the establishment of bilateral symmetry within individual lineages. We can discern six different early cleavage types and suggest that these variations are due to modifications in the activity of the POCs in conjunction with changes in the distribution of PAR proteins. In addition, our studies indicate that lineage complexity advanced considerably during evolution, that is we observe trends towards an increase of somatic founder cells, from monoclonal to polyclonal lineages and from a variable (position-dependent) to an invariable (lineage-dependent) way of cell fate specification. In contrast to the early phase of embryogenesis, the second half ('morphogenesis') appears similar in all studied nematodes. Comparison of early cleavage between the basal nematode Tobrilus stefanskii and the tardigrade Hypsibius dujardini revealed surprising similarities indicating that the presence of POCs is not restricted to nematode embryos.


The pattern of cleavage, spatial arrangement and differentiation of cells diverged dramatically during the history of the phylum Nematoda without corresponding changes in the phenotype. While in all studied representatives the same distinctive developmental steps need to be taken, cell behavior leading to these is not conserved.

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