Metameric organisation of the nervous system in developmental stages of Urechis caupo (Echiura) and its phylogenetic implications
The phylogenetic position of Echiura is still in continuous debate. The commonly accepted view regards Echiura as a distinct taxon, often classified as phylum, which forms the sister group of the Articulata. The alternative view considers Echiura to be a subtaxon of Annelida, which is supported by numerous shared characters. The correct systematic position of Echiura is inevitably linked to the presence or absence of true segmentation. The apparent lack of segmentation in Echiura is considered to be either primary, thereby supporting their exclusion from Annelida, or alternatively to be the result of reduction. The latter would clearly substantiate their classification as a subtaxon of Annelida. Immunohistochemical methods and confocal laser-scanning microscopy clearly demonstrate a metameric organisation of the nervous system in different larval stages of Urechis caupo, which corresponds to the segmental arrangement of ganglia in "typical" Annelida. This segmental pattern is reflected in the serially repetitive distribution of neurons containing the neurotransmitter serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine) and also in the corresponding distribution of strictly paired peripheral nerves. Precisely two pairs of peripheral nerves are associated with each of the repetitive units. This metameric pattern also corresponds to the transient annulation of the trunk, which is found in late larval stages. Other characters of the nervous system including the paired origin of the ventral nerve cord, the anterior-posterior development gradient and the presence of a distinct suboesophageal ganglion are also found accordingly in typical Annelida. These results are interpreted as an indication that Echiura are derived from formerly segmented ancestors, and thus support their systematic inclusion within Annelida.