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Open Access Review

Life cycle evolution: was the eumetazoan ancestor a holopelagic, planktotrophic gastraea?

Claus Nielsen

Author Affiliations

Zoological Museum, The Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen, Universitetsparken 15, DK-2100, Copenhagen, Denmark

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:171  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-171

Published: 16 August 2013

Abstract

Background

Two theories for the origin of animal life cycles with planktotrophic larvae are now discussed seriously: The terminal addition theory proposes a holopelagic, planktotrophic gastraea as the ancestor of the eumetazoans with addition of benthic adult stages and retention of the planktotrophic stages as larvae, i.e. the ancestral life cycles were indirect. The intercalation theory now proposes a benthic, deposit-feeding gastraea as the bilaterian ancestor with a direct development, and with planktotrophic larvae evolving independently in numerous lineages through specializations of juveniles.

Results

Information from the fossil record, from mapping of developmental types onto known phylogenies, from occurrence of apical organs, and from genetics gives no direct information about the ancestral eumetazoan life cycle; however, there are plenty of examples of evolution from an indirect development to direct development, and no unequivocal example of evolution in the opposite direction. Analyses of scenarios for the two types of evolution are highly informative. The evolution of the indirect spiralian life cycle with a trochophora larva from a planktotrophic gastraea is explained by the trochophora theory as a continuous series of ancestors, where each evolutionary step had an adaptational advantage. The loss of ciliated larvae in the ecdysozoans is associated with the loss of outer ciliated epithelia. A scenario for the intercalation theory shows the origin of the planktotrophic larvae of the spiralians through a series of specializations of the general ciliation of the juvenile. The early steps associated with the enhancement of swimming seem probable, but the following steps which should lead to the complicated downstream-collecting ciliary system are without any advantage, or even seem disadvantageous, until the whole structure is functional. None of the theories account for the origin of the ancestral deuterostome (ambulacrarian) life cycle.

Conclusions

All the available information is strongly in favor of multiple evolution of non-planktotrophic development, and only the terminal addition theory is in accordance with the Darwinian theory by explaining the evolution through continuous series of adaptational changes. This implies that the ancestor of the eumetazoans was a holopelagic, planktotrophic gastraea, and that the adult stages of cnidarians (sessile) and bilaterians (creeping) were later additions to the life cycle. It further implies that the various larval types are of considerable phylogenetic value.

Keywords:
Larvae; Evolution; Adaptation; Planktotrophy; Gastraea; Trochaea; Dipleurula