Biology Department, University of Victoria, Victoria, B.C., Canada, V8W-3N5.
The MHB (midbrain-hindbrain boundary) is a key organizing center in the vertebrate brain characterized by highly conserved patterns of gene expression. The evidence for an MHB homolog in protochordates is equivocal, the "neck" region immediately caudal to the sensory vesicle in ascidian larvae being the best accepted candidate. It is argued here that similarities in expression patterns between the MHB and the ascidian neck region are more likely due to the latter being the principal source of neurons in the adult brain, and hence where all the genes involved in patterning the latter will necessarily be expressed. The contrast with amphioxus is exemplified by pax2/5/8, expressed in the neck region in ascidian larvae, but more caudally, along much of the nerve cord in amphioxus. The zone of expression in each case corresponds with that part of the nerve cord ultimately responsible for innervating the adult body, which suggests the spatially restricted MHB-like expression pattern in ascidians is secondarily reduced from a condition more like that in amphioxus. Patterns resembling those of the vertebrate MHB are nevertheless found elsewhere among metazoans. This suggests that, irrespective of its modern function, the MHB marks the site of an organizing center of considerable antiquity. Any explanation for how such a center became incorporated into the chordate brain must take account of the dorsoventral inversion chordates have experienced relative to other metazoans. Especially relevant here is a concept developed by Claus Nielsen, in which the brain is derived from a neural center located behind the ancestral mouth. While this is somewhat counterintuitive, it accords well with emerging molecular data.
Keywords: protochordates, midbrain/hindbrain boundary, brain evolution, ascidians, amphioxus, dorsoventral inversion