Cells, molecules and morphogenesis: the making of the vertebrate ear

Bernd Fritzsch, Sarah Pauley, Kirk W. Beisel

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73 Scopus citations


The development and evolution of mechanosensory cells and the vertebrate ear is reviewed with an emphasis on delineating the cellular, molecular and developmental basis of these changes. Outgroup comparisons suggests that mechanosensory cells are ancient features of multicellular organisms. Molecular evidence suggests that key genes involved in mechanosensory cell function and development are also conserved among metazoans. The divergent morphology of mechanosensory cells across phyla is interpreted here as 'deep molecular homology' that was in parallel shaped into different forms in each lineage. The vertebrate mechanosensory hair cell and its associated neuron are interpreted as uniquely derived features of vertebrates. It is proposed that the vertebrate otic placode presents a unique embryonic adaptation in which the diffusely distributed ancestral mechanosensory cells became concentrated to generate a large neurosensory precursor population. Morphogenesis of the inner ear is reviewed and shown to depend on genes expressed in and around the hindbrain that interact with the otic placode to define boundaries and polarities. These patterning genes affect downstream genes needed to maintain proliferation and to execute ear morphogenesis. We propose that fibroblast growth factors (FGFs) and their receptors (FGFRs) are a crucial central node to translate patterning into the complex morphology of the vertebrate ear. Unfortunately, the FGF and FGFR genes have not been fully analyzed in the many mutants with morphogenetic ear defects described thus far. Likewise, little information exists on the ear histogenesis and neurogenesis in many mutants. Nevertheless, a molecular mechanism is now emerging for the formation of the horizontal canal, an evolutionary novelty of the gnathostome ear. The existing general module mediating vertical canal growth and morphogenesis was modified by two sets of new genes: one set responsible for horizontal canal morphogenesis and another set for neurosensory formation of the horizontal crista and associated sensory neurons. The dramatic progress in deciphering the molecular basis of ear morphogenesis offers grounds for optimism for translational research toward intervention in human morphogenetic defects of the ear.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)151-171
Number of pages21
JournalBrain Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 26 2006

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Molecular Biology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Developmental Biology


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