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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

An ancient process in a modern mollusc: early development of the shell in Lymnaea stagnalis

Jennifer Hohagen and Daniel J Jackson*

Author Affiliations

Courant Research Centre Geobiology, Georg-August University of Göttingen, Goldschmidtstrasse 3, 37077, Göttingen, Germany

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BMC Developmental Biology 2013, 13:27  doi:10.1186/1471-213X-13-27

Published: 12 July 2013



The morphological variety displayed by the molluscan shell underlies much of the evolutionary success of this phylum. However, the broad diversity of shell forms, sizes, ornamentations and functions contrasts with a deep conservation of early cell movements associated with the initiation of shell construction. This process begins during early embryogenesis with a thickening of an ectodermal, ‘dorsal’ (opposite the blastopore) population of cells, which then invaginates into the blastocoel to form the shell gland. The shell gland evaginates to form the shell field, which then expands and further differentiates to eventually become the adult shell-secreting organ commonly known as the mantle. Despite the deep conservation of the early shell forming developmental program across molluscan classes, little is known about the fine-scale cellular or molecular processes that underlie molluscan shell development.


Using modern imaging techniques we provide here a description of the morphogenesis of a gastropod shell gland and shell field using the pulmonate gastropod Lymnaea stagnalis as a model. We find supporting evidence for a hypothesis of molluscan shell gland specification proposed over 60 years ago, and present histochemical assays that can be used to identify a variety of larval shell stages and distinct cell populations in whole mounts.


By providing a detailed spatial and temporal map of cell movements and differentiation events during early shell development in L. stagnalis we have established a platform for future work aimed at elucidation of the molecular mechanisms and regulatory networks that underlie the evo-devo of the molluscan shell.

Shell; Mollusc; Biomineralisation; Evolution; Development; Specification; Mantle; Alkaline phosphatase; Peroxidase