Summary and Keywords
The emergence and diversification of bilateral animals are among the most important transitions in the history of life on our planet. A proper understanding of the evolutionary process will derive from answering such key questions as, how did complex body plans arise in evolutionary time, and how are complex body plans “encoded” in the genome? the first step is focusing on the earliest stages in bilaterian evolution, probing the most elusive organization of the genomes and microscopic anatomy in basally branching taxa, which are currently assembled in a clade named Xenacoelomorpha. This enigmatic phylum is composed of three major taxa: acoel flatworms, nemertodermatids, and xenoturbellids. Interestingly, the constituent species of this clade have an enormously varied set of morphologies; not just the obvious external features but also their tissues present a high degree of constructional variation. This interesting diversity of morphologies (a clear example being the nervous system, with animals showing different degrees of compaction) provides a unique system in which to address outstanding questions regarding the parallel evolution of genomes and the many morphological characters encoded by them. A systematic exploration of the anatomy of members of these three taxa, employing immunohistochemistry, in situ hybridization, and high-throughput transmission electron microscopy, will provide the reference framework necessary to understand the changing roles of genes and gene networks during the evolution of xenacoelomorph morphologies and, in particular, of their nervous systems.
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