Ctenophores are non-bilaterian animals sharing with cnidarians and bilaterians the presence of sensory receptors, nerve cells, and synapses, absent in placozoans and sponges. Although recent immunofluorescence studies have renewed our knowledge of cnidarian neuro-anatomy, ctenophores have been much less investigated despite their importance to understanding the origin and early evolution of the nervous system. In this study, the neuro-anatomy of the ctenophore Pleurobrachia pileus (Müller, 1776) was explored by whole-mount fluorescent antibody staining using antibodies against tyrosylated -tubulin, FMRFamide, and vasopressin. We describe the morphology of nerve nets and their local specializations, and the organization of the aboral neuro-sensory complex comprising the apical organ and polar fields. Two distinct nerve nets are distinguished: a mesogleal nerve net, loosely organized throughout body mesoglea, and a much more compact “nerve net” with polygonal meshes in the ectodermal epithelium. The latter is organized as a plexus of short nerve cords. This epithelial nervous system contains distinct sub-populations of dispersed FMRFamide and vasopressin immunoreactive nerve cells. In the aboral neuro-sensory complex, our most significant observations include specialized nerve nets underlying the apical organ and polar fields, a tangential bundle of actin-rich fibers (interpreted as a muscle) within the polar fields, and distinct groups of neurons labeled by anti-FMRFamide and anti-vasopressin antibodies, within the apical organ floor. These results are discussed in a comparative perspective.
The early evolution and diversification of Hox-related genes in eumetazoans has been the subject of conflicting hypotheses concerning the evolutionary conservation of their role in axial patterning and the pre-bilaterian origin of the Hox and ParaHox clusters. The diversification of Hox/ParaHox genes clearly predates the origin of bilaterians. However, the existence of a "Hox code" predating the cnidarian-bilaterian ancestor and supporting the deep homology of axes is more controversial. This assumption was mainly based on the interpretation of Hox expression data from the sea anemone, but growing evidence from other cnidarian taxa puts into question this hypothesis.
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