Step-wise evolution of neural patterning by Hedgehog signalling in chordates
Abstract: In vertebrate embryos, Hedgehog (Hh) is expressed in some anterior basal plate domains and by notochord and floorplate cells, and ventral neural cells are patterned by the activities of Hh-regulated transcription factors. Hh signalling is antagonized by signals from the dorsal neural tube and loss of Hh leads to loss of ventral patterning as dorsal pattern expands. These mechanisms are critical for producing the neurons that implement motor responses to sensory inputs but understanding how they evolved has been hindered by lack of insight from commonly studied invertebrates where nervous system morphology and genetic mechanisms are non-conserved with vertebrates. The invertebrate chordate amphioxus, which expresses Hh in its notochord and floorplate, provides a window into the prevertebrate condition. We examined amphioxus neural development by manipulating Hh and downstream genes involved in neural pattern and cell identity. We show that Hh signalling regulates the differentiation of some neurons in amphioxus, including a subset of motor neurons. This demonstrates some conservation of mechanism between vertebrates and amphioxus. However, other aspects of neural patterning differ between the lineages. We suggest the complexity of Hh-dependent neural patterning in vertebrates evolved in a step-wise manner. Alongside other previously described regulatory changes, initial recruitment of Hh along the length of the axis occurred in an ancestor to the chordates to regulate the differentiation of a subset of neurons. This was followed, in the vertebrate lineage, by additional changes to the downstream gene regulatory network of transcription factors, giving Hh a broader role in dorsal–ventral neural patterning.