The origin of animal eggs and the ‘embryonic hourglass’: a new (joint) interpretation

Stuart A. Newman
New York Medical College
Newman@NYMC.edu
Presented in the Embryo Physics Course, November 10, 2010

Abstract

The evolutionary origin of the egg stage of animal development presents several difficulties for conventional developmental and evolutionary narratives. If the egg’s internal organization represents a template for key features of the developed organism, why can taxa within a given phylum exhibit very different egg types, pass through a common intermediate morphology (the so-called “phylotypic stage”), only to diverge again, thus exemplifying the embryonic “hourglass”? Moreover, if different egg types typically represent adaptations to different environmental conditions, why do birds and mammals, for example, have such vastly different eggs with respect to size, shape, and postfertilization dynamics, whereas all these features are more similar for ascidians and mammals? Here, I consider the possibility that different body plans had their origin in self-organizing physical processes in ancient clusters of cells, and suggest that eggs represented a set of independent evolutionary innovations subsequently inserted into the developmental trajectories of such aggregates. I first describe how “dynamical patterning modules” (DPMs) associations between components of the metazoan developmental-genetic toolkit and certain physical processes and effects may have organized primitive animal body plans independently of an egg stage. Next, I describe how adaptive specialization of cells released from such aggregates could have become “proto-eggs,” which regenerated the parental cell clusters by cleavage, conserving the characteristic DPMs available to a lineage. Then, I show how known processes of cytoplasmic reorganization following fertilization are often based on spontaneous, self-organizing physical effects (“egg-patterning processes”: EPPs). I suggest that rather than acting as developmental blueprints or prepatterns, the EPPs refine the phylotypic body plans determined by the DPMs by setting the boundary and initial conditions under which these multicellular patterning mechanisms operate. Finally, I describe how this new perspective provides a resolution to the embryonic hourglass puzzle.

Presentation

/files/presentations/Newman2010.pdf

Links

http://www.nymc.edu/sanewman/

A Pattern Language for Animal Form


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