As a sister group to Bilateria, Cnidaria is important for understanding early nervous system evolution. Here we examine neural development in the anthozoan cnidarian Nematostella vectensis in order to better understand whether similar developmental mechanisms are utilized to establish the strikingly different overall organization of bilaterian and cnidarian nervous systems. We generated a neuron-specific transgenic NvElav1 reporter line of N. vectensis and used it in combination with immunohistochemistry against neuropeptides, in situ hybridization and confocal microscopy to analyze nervous system formation in this cnidarian model organism in detail. We show that the development of neurons commences in the ectoderm during gastrulation and involves interkinetic nuclear migration. Transplantation experiments reveal that sensory and ganglion cells are autonomously generated by the ectoderm. In contrast to bilaterians, neurons are also generated throughout the endoderm during planula stages. Morpholino-mediated gene knockdown shows that the development of a subset of ectodermal neurons requires NvElav1, the ortholog to bilaterian neural elav1 genes. The orientation of ectodermal neurites changes during planula development from longitudinal (in early-born neurons) to transverse (in late-born neurons), whereas endodermal neurites can grow in both orientations at any stage. Our findings imply that elav1-dependent ectodermal neurogenesis evolved prior to the divergence of Cnidaria and Bilateria. Moreover, they suggest that, in contrast to bilaterians, almost the entire ectoderm and endoderm of the body column of Nematostella planulae have neurogenic potential and that the establishment of connectivity in its seemingly simple nervous system involves multiple neurite guidance systems.
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