The International Journal of Developmental Biology

Int. J. Dev. Biol. 58: 485 - 499 (2014)

Vol 58, Issue 6-7-8

Special Issue: Spiralian Model Systems

Sipuncula: an emerging model of spiralian development and evolution

Published: 15 January 2015

Michael J. Boyle1and Mary E. Rice2

1Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), Panama, Republic of Panama and 2Smithsonian Marine Station at Fort Pierce (SMSFP), Florida, USA


Sipuncula is an ancient clade of unsegmented marine worms that develop through a conserved pattern of unequal quartet spiral cleavage. They exhibit putative character modifications, including conspicuously large first-quartet micromeres and prototroch cells, postoral metatroch with exclusive locomotory function, paired retractor muscles and terminal organ system, and a U-shaped digestive architecture with left-right asymmetric development. Four developmental life history patterns are recognized, and they have evolved a unique metazoan larval type, the pelagosphera. When compared with other quartet spiral-cleaving models, sipunculan development is understudied, challenging and typically absent from evolutionary interpretations of spiralian larval and adult body plan diversity. If spiral cleavage is appropriately viewed as a flexible character complex, then understudied clades and characters should be investigated. We are pursuing sipunculan models for modern molecular, genetic and cellular research on evolution of spiralian development. Protocols for whole mount gene expression studies are established in four species. Molecular labeling and confocal imaging techniques are operative from embryogenesis through larval development. Next-generation sequencing of developmental transcriptomes has been completed for two species with highly contrasting life history patterns, Phascolion cryptum (direct development) and Nephasoma pellucidum (indirect planktotrophy). Looking forward, we will attempt intracellular lineage tracing and fate-mapping studies in a proposed model sipunculan, Themiste lageniformis. Importantly, with the unsegmented Sipuncula now repositioned within the segmented Annelida, sipunculan worms have become timely and appropriate models for investigating the potential for flexibility in spiralian development, including segmentation. We briefly review previous studies, and discuss new observations on the spiralian character complex within Sipuncula.


pelagosphera, metatroch, unequal, U-shaped, ectomesoderm

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