Trunk lateral cells are neural crest-like cells in the ascidian Ciona intestinalis: insights into the ancestry and evolution of the neural crest. Academic Article uri icon


  • Neural crest-like cells (NCLC) that express the HNK-1 antigen and form body pigment cells were previously identified in diverse ascidian species. Here we investigate the embryonic origin, migratory activity, and neural crest related gene expression patterns of NCLC in the ascidian Ciona intestinalis. HNK-1 expression first appeared at about the time of larval hatching in dorsal cells of the posterior trunk. In swimming tadpoles, HNK-1 positive cells began to migrate, and after metamorphosis they were localized in the oral and atrial siphons, branchial gill slits, endostyle, and gut. Cleavage arrest experiments showed that NCLC are derived from the A7.6 cells, the precursors of trunk lateral cells (TLC), one of the three types of migratory mesenchymal cells in ascidian embryos. In cleavage arrested embryos, HNK-1 positive TLC were present on the lateral margins of the neural plate and later became localized adjacent to the posterior sensory vesicle, a staging zone for their migration after larval hatching. The Ciona orthologues of seven of sixteen genes that function in the vertebrate neural crest gene regulatory network are expressed in the A7.6/TLC lineage. The vertebrate counterparts of these genes function downstream of neural plate border specification in the regulatory network leading to neural crest development. The results suggest that NCLC and neural crest cells may be homologous cell types originating in the common ancestor of tunicates and vertebrates and support the possibility that a putative regulatory network governing NCLC development was co-opted to produce neural crest cells during vertebrate evolution.

publication date

  • December 1, 2008