|New insights into the evolution of the hindbrain
January 30, 2004 – The advent of the hindbrain is an evolutionarily important
event in the organization of the central nervous system. In work published in the journal
Development, Shigeru Kuratani and colleagues in the
RIKEN CDB Laboratory for Evolutionary Morphology revealed discrete mechanisms for segmentation
and neural cell specification in a one of the most primitive species known to possess a segmented
In vertebrates, the hindbrain is a segmented structure, subdivided into clearly demarcated
units called rhombomeres, which generate specific sets of neurons. The lancelet Amphioxus,
a more primitive chordate, however, lacks this hindbrain segmentation. The lamprey, a jawless
fish that arose in the interval between non-vertebrate chordates (such as Amphioxus)
and gnathostomes (jawed animals), provides a relevant model for studying the emergence of
the hindbrain developmental plan.
Mauthner neuron (arrow), which develops in rhombomere 4 in all vertebrate species
Yasunori Murakami in the Kuratani lab labeled reticulospinal and branchial motor neurons
(which derive from rhombomeres) to reveal the neuronal organization of the hindbrain of
the Japanese lamprey, Lethenteron japonicum, and studies the expression patterns
of rhombomere-specific genes. They found that lamprey reticular neurons develop in conserved
rhombomere-specific positions, similar to those observed in the gnathostome zebrafish. Interestingly,
in lamprey the positions of other sets of hindbrain neurons – the trigeminal and facial
motor nuclei – do not map neatly to rhombomeric borderlines, as they do in gnathostomes.
Rather, the trigeminal–facial nerve originates in the middle of rhombomere 4, in the
region of expression of the lamprey Hox gene LjHox3. Murakami found that when retinoic
acid (which is known to alter Hox gene expression and associated developmental
programs) was introduced to the developing hindbrain region, it caused positional shifts
of both LjHox3 expression and branchiomotor nuclei, but no apparent changes in
segmentation or the positions of reticular neurons.
These findings indicate that, in the lamprey, hindbrain neural identities and rhombomeric
segmentation are governed by independent mechanisms, providing strong counter-evidence to
one prevailing model that suggests that the establishment of neuronal identity is a Hox-dependent
process. Based on their discoveries, Kuratani et al offer an alternate model in which the
positional concurrence between Hox expression, rhombomere identity and specific
subsets of hindbrain neurons is the result of a convergent process in which originally independent
mechanisms became linked secondarily in the history of gnathostome evolution.
Studies such as these underscore a pair of evo-devo precepts: that molecular designs capable
of supporting viable ontogenies tend to act as magnets for convergent evolution, and that
Nature is parsimonious with her creations, preferring to repurpose or tinker with existing
genes rather than to introduce perfect novelties.