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Dev Biol. 2018 Sep 15;441(2):285-296. doi: 10.1016/j.ydbio.2018.06.004. Epub 2018 Jun 6.

Morphogenesis and motility of the Astyanax mexicanus gastrointestinal tract.

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Department of Genetics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA.
Laboratory for Enteric Neuroscience, Translational Research Center for Gastrointestinal Disorders, University of Leuven, Leuven, Belgium.
Department of Genetics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA; Department of Ophthalmology, SUNY Downstate, Brooklyn, NY 11203, USA.
Department of Genetics, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA. Electronic address:


Through the course of evolution, the gastrointestinal (GI) tract has been modified to maximize nutrient absorption, forming specialized segments that are morphologically and functionally distinct. Here we show that the GI tract of the Mexican tetra, Astyanax mexicanus, has distinct regions, exhibiting differences in morphology, motility, and absorption. We found that A. mexicanus populations adapted for life in subterranean caves exhibit differences in the GI segments compared to those adapted to surface rivers. Cave-adapted fish exhibit bi-directional churning motility in the stomach region that is largely absent in river-adapted fish. We investigated how this motility pattern influences intestinal transit of powdered food and live prey. We found that powdered food is more readily emptied from the cavefish GI tract. In contrast, the transit of live rotifers from the stomach region to the midgut occurs more slowly in cavefish compared to surface fish, consistent with the presence of churning motility. Differences in intestinal motility and transit likely reflect adaptation to unique food sources available to post-larval A. mexicanus in the cave and river environments. We found that cavefish grow more quickly than surface fish when fed ad libitum, suggesting that altered GI function may aid in nutrient consumption or absorption. We did not observe differences in enteric neuron density or smooth muscle organization between cavefish and surface fish. Altered intestinal motility in cavefish could instead be due to changes in the activity or patterning of the enteric nervous system. Exploring this avenue will lead to a better understanding of how the GI tract evolves to maximize energy assimilation from novel food sources.


Astyanax mexicanus; Enteric nervous system; Evolution; Gastrointestinal tract; Gut morphogenesis; Intestinal motility

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