The International Journal of Developmental Biology

Int. J. Dev. Biol. 47: 541 - 553 (2003)

Vol 47, Issue 7-8

Special Issue: Evolution & Development

Origins and plasticity of neural crest cells and their roles in jaw and craniofacial evolution

Published: 1 December 2003

Paul A Trainor, Kristin R Melton and Miguel Manzanares

Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Kansas City MO 64110, USA.


The vertebrate head is a complex assemblage of cranial specializations, including the central and peripheral nervous systems, viscero- and neurocranium, musculature and connective tissue. The primary differences that exist between vertebrates and other chordates relate to their craniofacial organization. Therefore, evolution of the head is considered fundamental to the origins of vertebrates (Gans and Northcutt, 1983). The transition from invertebrate to vertebrate chordates was a multistep process, involving the formation and patterning of many new cell types and tissues. The evolution of early vertebrates, such as jawless fish, was accompanied by the emergence of a specialized set of cells, called neural crest cells which have long held a fascination for developmental and evolutionary biologists due to their considerable influence on the complex development of the vertebrate head. Although it has been classically thought that protochordates lacked neural crest counterparts, the recent identification and characterization of amphioxus and ascidian genes homologous to those involved in vertebrate neural crest development challenges this idea. Instead it suggests thatthe neural crest may not be a novel vertebrate cell population, but could have in fact originated from the protochordate dorsal midline epidermis. Consequently, the evolution of the neural crest cells could be reconsidered in terms of the acquisition of new cell properties such as delamination-migration and also multipotency which were key innovations that contributed to craniofacial development. In this review we discuss recent findings concerning the inductive origins of neural crest cells, as well as new insights into the mechanisms patterning this cell population and the subsequent influence this has had on craniofacial evolution.

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