Moroz LL. Convergent evolution of neural systems in ctenophores. J Exp Biol 2015; 218(Pt 4):598-611.
Neurons are defined as polarized secretory cells specializing in directional propagation of electrical signals leading to the release of extracellular messengers – features that enable them to transmit information, primarily chemical in nature, beyond their immediate neighbors without affecting all intervening cells en route. Multiple origins of neurons and synapses from different classes of ancestral secretory cells might have occurred more than once during ~600 million years of animal evolution with independent events of nervous system centralization from a common bilaterian/cnidarian ancestor without the bona fide central nervous system. Ctenophores, or comb jellies, represent an example of extensive parallel evolution in neural systems. First, recent genome analyses place ctenophores as a sister group to other animals. Second, ctenophores have a smaller complement of pan-animal genes controlling canonical neurogenic, synaptic, muscle and immune systems, and developmental pathways than most other metazoans. However, comb jellies are carnivorous marine animals with a complex neuromuscular organization and sophisticated patterns of behavior. To sustain these functions, they have evolved a number of unique molecular innovations supporting the hypothesis of massive homoplasies in the organization of integrative and locomotory systems. Third, many bilaterian/cnidarian neuron-specific genes and ‘classical’ neurotransmitter pathways are either absent or, if present, not expressed in ctenophore neurons (e.g. the bilaterian/cnidarian neurotransmitter, γ-amino butyric acid or GABA, is localized in muscles and presumed bilaterian neuron-specific RNA-binding protein Elav is found in non-neuronal cells). Finally, metabolomic and pharmacological data failed to detect either the presence or any physiological action of serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline, adrenaline, octopamine, acetylcholine or histamine – consistent with the hypothesis that ctenophore neural systems evolved independently from those in other animals. Glutamate and a diverse range of secretory peptides are first candidates for ctenophore neurotransmitters. Nevertheless, it is expected that other classes of signal and neurogenic molecules would be discovered in ctenophores as the next step to decipher one of the most distinct types of neural organization in the animal kingdom.
KEYWORDS: Ctenophora; Evolution; Genome; Mnemiopsis; Neurons; Neurotransmitters; Phylogeny; Pleurobrachia