, Volume 208, Issue 10, pp 569-577

An amphioxus snail gene: Expression in paraxial mesoderm and neural plate suggests a conserved role in patterning the chordate embryo

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 Homologs of the Drosophila snail gene have been characterized in several vertebrates. In addition to being expressed in mesoderm during gastrulation, vertebrate snail genes are also expressed in presumptive neural crest and/or its derivatives. Given that neural crest is unique to vertebrates and is considered to be of fundamental importance in their evolution, we have cloned and characterized the expression of a snail gene from amphioxus, a cephalochordate widely accepted as the sister group of the vertebrates. We show that, at the amino acid sequence level, the amphioxus snail gene is a clear phylogenetic outgroup to all the characterized vertebrate snail genes. During embryogenesis snail expression initially becomes restricted to the paraxial or presomitic mesoderm of amphioxus. Later, snail is expressed at high levels in the lateral neural plate, where it persists during neurulation. Our results indicate that an ancestral function of snail genes in the lineage leading to vertebrates is to define the paraxial mesoderm. Furthermore, our results indicate that a cell population homologous to the vertebrate neural crest may be present in amphioxus, thus providing an important link in the evolution of this key vertebrate tissue.

Received: 11 May 1998 / Accepted: 2 August 1998