Int. J. Dev. Biol. 45: 133 - 153 (2001)
© UBC Press

Evolution of the organizer and the chordate body plan.

J Gerhart

Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of California, Berkeley 94720, USA. gerhart@socrates.berkeley.edu

ABSTRACT The discovery of the organizer by Spemann and Mangold in 1924 raised two kinds of questions: those about the means of patterning the chordate body axis and those about the mechanisms of cell determination by induction. Some researchers, stressing the second, have suggested over the years that the organizer is poorly named and doesn't really organize because inducers act permissively, because they are not unique to the organizer, and because multipotent responsive cells develop complex local differentiations under artificial conditions. Furthermore, with the discovery of meso-endoderm induction in 1969, the possibility arose that this earlier induction generates as much organization as, or more than, does the organizer itself. Evidence is summarized in this article that the organizer does fulfill its title with regard to pattern formation: it adds greatly to embryonic organization by providing information about time, place, scale, and orientation for development by nearby members of the large multipotent competence groups surrounding the organizer. Embryos having smaller or larger organizers due to experimental intervention develop defective axial organization. Without an organizer the embryo develops no body axis and none of the four chordate characters: the notochord, gill slits, dorsal hollow nerve chord, and post-anal tail. For normal axis formation, the organizer's tripartite organization is needed. Each part differs in inducers, morphogenesis, and self-differentiation. The organizer is a trait of development of all members of the chordate phylum. In comparison to hemichordates, which constitute a phylum with some similarities to chordates, the chordamesoderm part is unique to the chordate organizer (the trunk-tail organizer). Its convergent extension displaces the gastrula posterior pole from alignment with the animal-vegetal axis and generates a new anteroposterior axis orthogonal to this old one. Once it has extended to full length, its signaling modifies the dorsoventral dimension. This addition to the organizer is seen as a major event in chordate evolution, bringing body organization beyond that achieved by oocyte organization and meso-endoderm induction in other groups.