Embryonic development of the axial column in the little skate, Leucoraja erinacea.
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The morphological patterns and molecular mechanisms of vertebral column development are well understood in bony fishes (osteichthyans). However, vertebral column morphology in elasmobranch chondrichthyans (e.g., sharks and skates) differs from that of osteichthyans, and its development has not been extensively studied. Here, we characterize vertebral development in an elasmobranch fish, the little skate, Leucoraja erinacea, using microCT, paraffin histology, and whole-mount skeletal preparations. Vertebral development begins with the condensation of mesenchyme, first around the notochord, and subsequently around the neural tube and caudal artery and vein. Mesenchyme surrounding the notochord differentiates into a continuous sheath of spindle-shaped cells, which forms the precursor to the mineralized areolar calcification of the centrum. Mesenchyme around the neural tube and caudal artery/vein becomes united by a population of mesenchymal cells that condenses lateral to the sheath of spindle-shaped cells, with this mesenchymal complex eventually differentiating into the hyaline cartilage of the future neural arches, hemal arches, and outer centrum. The initially continuous layers of areolar tissue and outer hyaline cartilage eventually subdivide into discrete centra and arches, with the notochord constricted in the center of each vertebra by a late-forming "inner layer" of hyaline cartilage, and by a ring of areolar calcification located medial to the outer vertebral cartilage. The vertebrae of elasmobranchs are distinct among vertebrates, both in terms of their composition (i.e., with centra consisting of up to three tissues layers-an inner cartilage layer, a calcified areolar ring, and an outer layer of hyaline cartilage), and their mode of development (i.e., the subdivision of arch and outer centrum cartilage from an initially continuous layer of hyaline cartilage). Given the evident variation in patterns of vertebral construction, broad taxon sampling, and comparative developmental analyses are required to understand the diversity of mechanisms at work in the developing axial skeleton of vertebrates. J. Morphol. 278:300-320, 2017. © 2017 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
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