Institute of Molecular Genetics of the Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague, Czech Republic
The amphioxus (lancelet) was first described by Pallas in 1774 and incorrectly assigned to mollusks. Since then, amphioxus attracted generations of zoologists. It took however almost one hundred years until Alexander Kowalevsky recognized that the larval stages of amphioxus had much in common with vertebrate embryos. Widely studied around 1900 as the ‘elementary vertebrate’, amphioxus as a model went out of fashion with the decline of comparative anatomy. Due to the scarcity of taxa at the invertebrate-to-vertebrate transition, amphioxus nevertheless remained the species with a privileged position in animal phylogeny. Its resurrection as the popular model of evolutionary developmental biology came with the advent of modern molecular biology and genomics. In the 1990s amphioxus developmental control genes were identified and characterized at a fast pace with the hope that such studies could provide novel insight into an important evolutionary transition: the origin of vertebrates. Indeed, amphioxus was found to be vertebrate-like but much simpler. Its body resembles that of the vertebrate, but it lacks most of the complexities associated with typical vertebrate organs. Its genome is only 1/6 of the human genome and it has not undergone the whole genome duplications that occurred in the vertebrate lineage. For all of these reasons, amphioxus became widely regarded as a useful proxy for the primitive ancestor of all vertebrates. A persistent problem interpreting amphioxus in the phylogenetic context is the difficulty to distinguish ancestral features, and those that are secondarily derived. There is no doubt that an integrative approach combining information from various disciplines is needed in order to help resolve such issues. Anatomy and comparative morphology has always been strong since the dawn of amphioxus research. Recent developments such as the availability of genomic sequences for three Branchiostoma species, established laboratory cultures of amphioxus that can be spawned at the investigator’s will, or techniques allowing transgenesis and gene knockouts represent a major leap for studies on how the genotype generates a phenotype. These advances also enable the smooth transition of amphioxus from the model system of a distinguished past into the one with a very bright future.