Do vertebrate embryos exhibit significant variation in their early development? Yes, they do—in particular, the earliest stages show distinct differences that mainly reflect differences in maternal investment and that cause significant distortions of early morphology during gastrulation. However, these earliest patterns represent workarounds, strategies to accommodate one variable (the amount of yolk in the egg), and the animals subsequently reorganize to put tissues into a canonical arrangement. Observations of gene expression during gastrulation are revealing deeper similarities that are common in all deuterostomes—not just vertebrates, but also the invertebrate chordates (tunicates and cephalochordates) and echinoderms.
What does all that mean? If you think of development as a formal dance, the earliest stages are like the prelude; everyone is getting out of their chairs around the ballroom, looking for partners and working their way towards the floor. The dispositions of the dancers are variable and somewhat chaotic, and vary from dance to dance. Once they get to their positions, however, we're finding that not only is there a general similarity in their arrangements, but they're all dancing to the very same tune. In this case, one of the repeated motifs in that tune is a gene, Nodal, which is active in gastrulation and shows a similar pattern in animal after animal.
Continue reading "The evolution of deuterostome gastrulation" (on Pharyngula)