Keeping sensory cells and evolving neurons to connect them to the brain: Molecular conservation and novelties in vertebrate ear development

B. Fritzsch, K. W. Beisel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


The evolution of the mechanosensory cellular module and the molecular details that regulate its development has included morphological modifications of these cells as well as the formation of larger assemblies of mechanosensory cell aggregates among metazoans. This has resulted in a wide diversity of mechanosensory organs. The wide morphological diversity of organs, including the associated morphological modifications of the mechanosensory cells, suggests parallel evolution of these modules and their associated organs. This morphological diversity is in stark contrast to the molecular conservation of developmental modules across phyla. These molecular data suggest that the evolution of mechanosensory transduction might have preceded that of distinct cellular differentiation. However, once a molecular network governing development of specialized cells involved in mechanosensory transduction evolved, that molecular network was preserved across phyla. Present data suggest that at least the common ancestor of triploblastic organisms, perhaps even the common diploblastic ancestor of bilaterian metazoans, had molecular and cellular specializations for mechanosensation. It is argued that the evolution of multicellular organs dedicated to specific aspects of mechanosensation, such as gravity and sound perception, are evolutionary transformations that build on this conserved molecular network for cellular specialization, but reflect distinct morphological solutions. We propose that the sensory neurons, connecting the craniate ear with the brain, are a derived feature of craniates, and possibly chordates, that came about through diversification of the lineage forming mechanosensory cells during development. This evolutionarily late event suggests a heterochronic shift, so that sensory neurons develop in mammals prior to mechanosensory hair cells. However, sensory neuron development is connected to hair cell development, likely in a clonal relationship. The theme of cellular conservation is reiterated in two examples of chordate otic diversification: the evolution of the horizontal canal system and the evolution of the basilar papilla/cochlea. It is suggested that here again, cellular multiplication and formation of a special epithelium predates the functional transformation to an 'organ' system for horizontal angular acceleration and sound pressure reception, respectively. Overall, evolution of the vertebrate ear needs to be understood as an interplay between and utilization of two gene networks or modules. One is at the level of the molecularly and developmentally conserved mechanosensory cellular module. The other is an increased complexity in the morphology of both adult mechanosensory cells and organs by the addition of end-stage and novel features and associated gene networks to detect specific aspects of mechanosensory stimuli.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)182-197
Number of pages16
JournalBrain, behavior and evolution
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2004

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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