Clues to Nervous System Evolution Found in Nerve-less Sponge

Jun 18, 2012

UC Santa Barbara scientists turned to the simple sponge to find clues about the evolution of the complex nervous system and found that, but for a mechanism that coordinates the expression of genes that lead to the formation of neural synapses, sponges and the rest of the animal world may not be so distant after all. Their findings, titled “Functionalization of a protosynaptic gene expression network,” are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“If you’re interested in finding the truly ancient origins of the nervous system itself, we know where to look,” said Kenneth Kosik, Harriman Professor of Neuroscience Research in the Department of Molecular, Cellular & Developmental Biology, and co-director of UCSB's Neuroscience Research Institute

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That place, said Kosik, is the evolutionary period of time when virtually the rest of the animal kingdom branched off from a common ancestor it shared with sponges, the oldest known animal group with living representatives. Something must have happened to spur the evolution of the nervous system, a characteristic shared by creatures as simple as jellyfish and hydra to complex humans, according to Kosik.

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