Assuming that none of my readers are perfectly spherical, you all possess notable asymmetries—your top half is different from your bottom half, and your front or ventral half is different from you back or dorsal half. You left and right halves are probably superficially somewhat similar, but internally your organs are arranged in lopsided ways. Even so, the asymmetries are relatively specific: you aren't quite like that Volvox to the right, a ball of cells with specializations scattered randomly within. People predictably have heads on top, eyes in front, arms and legs in useful locations. This is a key feature of development, one so familiar that we take it for granted.
I'd go so far as to suggest that one of the most important events in our evolutionary history was the basic one of taking a symmetrical ball of cells and imposing on it a coordinate system, creating positional information that allowed cells to have specific identities in particular places in the embryo. When the first multicellular colony of identical cells set aside a particular patch of cells to carry out a particular function, say putting one small subset in charge of reproduction, that asymmetry became an anchor point for establishing polarity. If cells could then determine how far away they were from that primitive gonad, evolution could start shaping function by position—maybe cells far away from the gonad could be dedicated to feeding, cells in between to transport, etc., and a specialized multicellular organism could emerge. Those patterns are determined by interactions between genes, and we can try to unravel the evolutionary history of asymmetry with comparative studies of regulatory molecules in early development.
Continue reading "Ancient rules for Bilaterian development" (on Pharyngula)