Contemporary experimental studies analyzing the expression and function of homologous genes in various animal model systems are reviving a fundamental question raised more than 150 years ago in the famous academic debate between Cuvier and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire: does a common Bauplan underlie animal development, indicating homology of structures such as the ventrally located insect and the dorsally located chordate nervous system? Comparisons of the expression, function, and regulation of genes and genetic networks involved in anteroposterior and dorsoventral patterning of the insect and vertebrate nervous systems suggest that orthologous genes were already involved in neural specification in the insect and vertebrate stem species. Thus, the pervasive equivalence of the Dpp/BMP-4 and sog/Chd antagonism in executing the distinction between neural and non-neural, the vnd/Nkx, ind/Gsh, and msh/Msx gene network involved in early dorsoventral columnar patterning, the role of the otd/Otx genes in anterior CNS regionalization, and the action of Hox genes in the specification of segmental neuronal identity are all conserved in both insect and mammalian CNS development. This strongly suggests that these molecular genetic mechanisms were already apparent in an urbilaterian ancestor and that the insect and vertebrate nervous systems evolved from a common ancestral urbilater-ian brain.
However, it is also conceivable that complex gene expression characteristics pre-dated the generation of morphological complexity in the course of nervous system evolution. The analysis of developmental control gene expression in a hemichordate demonstrates that complex gene expression patterns, comparable to those observed in the CNS of insects and vertebrates, are compatible with the existence of a diffuse basiepithelial nerve net. Nevertheless, the hemichordate body plan is clearly derived and its basiepithelial nerve net may be the result of a secondary reduction or loss of an ancestral CNS. Some of the developmental control genes that operate in CNS development in arthropods and chordates are also expressed during cnidarian development. Although a diffuse, net-like nervous system is apparent in Cnidaria, the ambiguous data on orthologous gene expression in these animals impede any conclusive comparisons between cnidarian and bilateral nervous systems. The available data therefore suggest that only one ancestral, albeit rather complex, nervous system type was at the origin of bilaterian CNS evolution.
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