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Front Zool. 2014 Jun 18;11:44. doi: 10.1186/1742-9994-11-44. eCollection 2014.

Development and epithelial organisation of muscle cells in the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis.

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Department of Molecular Evolution and Development, Centre for Organismal Biology, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Vienna, Althanstrasse 14, 1090 Wien, Austria.
Department of Integrative Zoology, Centre for Organismal Biology, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Vienna, Althanstrasse 14, 1090 Wien, Austria.



Nematostella vectensis, a member of the cnidarian class Anthozoa, has been established as a promising model system in developmental biology, but while information about the genetic regulation of embryonic development is rapidly increasing, little is known about the cellular organization of the various cell types in the adult. Here, we studied the anatomy and development of the muscular system of N. vectensis to obtain further insights into the evolution of muscle cells.


The muscular system of N. vectensis is comprised of five distinct muscle groups, which are differentiated into a tentacle and a body column system. Both systems house longitudinal as well as circular portions. With the exception of the ectodermal tentacle longitudinal muscle, all muscle groups are of endodermal origin. The shape and epithelial organization of muscle cells vary considerably between different muscle groups. Ring muscle cells are formed as epitheliomuscular cells in which the myofilaments are housed in the basal part of the cell, while the apical part is connected to neighboring cells by apical cell-cell junctions. In the longitudinal muscles of the column, the muscular part at the basal side is connected to the apical part by a long and narrow cytoplasmic bridge. The organization of these cells, however, remains epitheliomuscular. A third type of muscle cell is represented in the longitudinal muscle of the tentacle. Using transgenic animals we show that the apical cell-cell junctions are lost during differentiation, resulting in a detachment of the muscle cells to a basiepithelial position. These muscle cells are still located within the epithelium and outside of the basal matrix, therefore constituting basiepithelial myocytes. We demonstrate that all muscle cells, including the longitudinal basiepithelial muscle cells of the tentacle, initially differentiate from regular epithelial cells before they alter their epithelial organisation.


A wide range of different muscle cell morphologies can already be found in a single animal. This suggests how a transition from an epithelially organized muscle system to a mesenchymal could have occurred. Our study on N. vectensis provides new insights into the organisation of a muscle system in a non-bilaterian organism.

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