The International Journal of Developmental Biology

Int. J. Dev. Biol. 61: 621 - 632 (2017)

Vol 61, Issue 10-11-12

Special Issue: The Amphioxus Model System

Metamerism in cephalochordates and the problem of the vertebrate head

Published: 20 December 2017

Takayuki Onai*,1,2, Noritaka Adachi1 and Shigeru Kuratani1

1Evolutionary Morphology Laboratory, RIKEN center for Developmental Biology, Chuo-ku, Kobe, Japan and 2Department of Anatomy, School of Medical Sciences, University of Fukui, Matsuokashimoaizuki, Japan


The vertebrate head characteristically exhibits a complex pattern with sense organs, brain, paired eyes and jaw muscles, and the brain case is not found in other chordates. How the extant vertebrate head has evolved remains enigmatic. Historically, there have been two conflicting views on the origin of the vertebrate head, segmental and non-segmental views. According to the segmentalists, the vertebrate head is organized as a metameric structure composed of segments equivalent to those in the trunk; a metamere in the vertebrate head was assumed to consist of a somite, a branchial arch and a set of cranial nerves, considering that the head evolved from rostral segments of amphioxus-like ancestral vertebrates. Non-segmentalists, however, considered that the vertebrate head was not segmental. In that case, the ancestral state of the vertebrate head may be non-segmented, and rostral segments in amphioxus might have been secondarily gained, or extant vertebrates might have evolved through radical modifications of amphioxus-like ancestral vertebrate head. Comparative studies of mesodermal development in amphioxus and vertebrate gastrula embryos have revealed that mesodermal gene expressions become segregated into two domains anteroposteriorly to specify the head mesoderm and trunk mesoderm only in vertebrates; in this segregation, key genes such as delta and hairy, involved in segment formation, are expressed in the trunk mesoderm, but not in the head mesoderm, strongly suggesting that the head mesoderm of extant vertebrates is not segmented. Taken together, the above finding possibly adds a new insight into the origin of the vertebrate head; the vertebrate head mesoderm would have evolved through an anteroposterior polarization of the paraxial mesoderm if the ancestral vertebrate had been amphioxus-like.


amphioxus, metamerism, vertebrate head, mesoderm, somite, evolution

Full text in web format is not available for this article. Please download the PDF version.