Int. J. Dev. Biol. 61: 575 - 583 (2017)
doi: 10.1387/ijdb.160395LH
© UPV/EHU Press

The ups and downs of amphioxus biology: a history

Nicholas D. Holland1 and Linda Z. Holland*,2

Marine Biology Research Division, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego, La Jolla, CA, USA

ABSTRACT Humans (at least a select few) have long known about the cephalochordate amphioxus, first as something to eat and later as a subject for scientific study. The rate of publication on these animals has waxed and waned several times. The first big surge, in the late nineteenth century, was stimulated by Darwin’s evolutionary ideas and by Kowalevsky’s embryologic findings suggesting that an amphioxus-like creature might have bridged the gap between the invertebrates and the vertebrates. Interest declined sharply in the early twentieth century and remained low for the next 50 years. An important contributing factor (in addition to inhibition by two world wars and the Great Depression) was the indifference of the new evolutionary synthesis toward broad phylogenetic problems like the origin of the vertebrates. Then, during the 1960s and 1970s, interest in amphioxus resurged, driven especially by increased government support for basic science as well as opportunities presented by electron microscopy. After faltering briefly in the 1980s (electron microscopists were running out of amphioxus tissues to study), a third and still-continuing period of intensive amphioxus research began in the early 1990s, stimulated by the advent of evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) and genomics. The volume of studies peaked in 2008 with the publication of the genome of the Florida amphioxus. Since then, although the number of papers per year has dropped somewhat, sequencing of additional genomes and transcriptomes of several species of amphioxus (both in the genus Branchiostoma and in a second genus, Asymmetron) is providing the raw material for addressing the major unanswered question of the relationship between genotype and phenotype.


Cephalochordata, amphioxus, lancelet, history of science, evodevo

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