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Plectus - a stepping stone in embryonic cell lineage evolution of nematodes

Abstract

Background

Recent studies have challenged the widespread view that the pattern of embryogenesis found in Caenorhabditis elegans (clade 9) is characteristic of nematodes in general. To understand this still largely unexplored landscape of developmental events, we set out to examine more distantly related nematodes in detail for temporospatial differences in pattern formation and cell specification. Members of the genus Plectus (clade 6) seem to be suitable candidates to show variety, with certain idiosyncratic features during early development and the convenient availability of cultivatable species.

Methods

The study was conducted using 4-D lineage analysis, 3-D modeling of developing embryos and laser-induced ablation of individual blastomeres.

Results

Detailed cell lineage studies of several Plectus species reveal that pattern formation and cell fate assignment differ markedly from C. elegans. Descendants of the first somatic founder cell S1 (AB) - but not the progeny of other founder cells - demonstrate extremely variable spatial arrangements illustrating that here distinct early cell-cell interactions between invariant partners, as found in C. elegans, cannot take place. Different from C. elegans, in Plectus alternative positional variations among early S1 blastomeres resulting in a ‘situs inversus’ pattern, nevertheless give rise to adults with normal left-right asymmetries. In addition, laser ablations of early blastomeres uncover inductions between variable cell partners.

Conclusions

Our results suggest that embryonic cell specification in Plectus is not correlated with cell lineage but with position. With this peculiarity, Plectus appears to occupy an intermediate position between basal nematodes displaying a variable early development and the C. elegans-like invariant pattern. We suggest that indeterminate pattern formation associated with late, position-dependent fate assignment represents a plesiomorphic character among nematodes predominant in certain basal clades but lost in derived clades. Thus, the behavior of S1 cells in Plectus can be considered an evolutionary relict in a transition phase between two different developmental strategies.