There is more than one way to develop neuronal complexity, and animals frequently use different molecular toolkits to achieve similar functional outcomes. Genomics and metabolomics data from basal metazoans suggest that neural signalling evolved independently in ctenophores and cnidarians/bilaterians. This polygenesis hypothesis explains the lack of pan-neuronal and pan-synaptic genes across metazoans, including remarkable examples of lineage-specific evolution of neurogenic and signalling molecules as well as synaptic components. Sponges and placozoans are two lineages without neural and muscular systems. The possibility of secondary loss of neurons and synapses in the Porifera/Placozoa clades is a highly unlikely and less parsimonious scenario. We conclude that acetylcholine, serotonin, histamine, dopamine, octopamine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) were recruited as transmitters in the neural systems in cnidarian and bilaterian lineages. By contrast, ctenophores independently evolved numerous secretory peptides, indicating extensive adaptations within the clade and suggesting that early neural systems might be peptidergic. Comparative analysis of glutamate signalling also shows numerous lineage-specific innovations, implying the extensive use of this ubiquitous metabolite and intercellular messenger over the course of convergent and parallel evolution of mechanisms of intercellular communication. Therefore: (i) we view a neuron as a functional character but not a genetic character, and (ii) any given neural system cannot be considered as a single character because it is composed of different cell lineages with distinct genealogies, origins and evolutionary histories. Thus, when reconstructing the evolution of nervous systems, we ought to start with the identification of particular cell lineages by establishing distant neural homologies or examples of convergent evolution. In a corollary of the hypothesis of the independent origins of neurons, our analyses suggest that both electrical and chemical synapses evolved more than once.
© 2015 The Authors.