Expression of smooth muscle-like effectors and core cardiomyocyte regulators in the contractile papillae of Ciona

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Abstract

Background: The evolution of vertebrate smooth muscles is obscured by lack of identifiable smooth muscle-like cells in tunicates, the invertebrates most closely related to vertebrates. A recent evolutionary model was proposed in which smooth muscles arose before the last bilaterian common ancestor, and were later diversified, secondarily lost or modified in the branches leading to extant animal taxa. However, there is currently no data from tunicates to support this scenario. Methods and results: Here, we show that the axial columnar cells, a unique cell type in the adhesive larval papillae of the tunicate Ciona, are enriched for orthologs of vertebrate smooth/non-muscle-specific effectors of contractility, in addition to developing from progenitors that express conserved cardiomyocyte regulatory factors. We show that these cells contract during the retraction of the Ciona papillae during larval settlement and metamorphosis. Conclusions: We propose that the axial columnar cells of Ciona are a myoepithelial cell type required for transducing external stimuli into mechanical forces that aid in the attachment of the motile larva to its final substrate. Furthermore, they share developmental and functional features with vertebrate myoepithelial cells, vascular smooth muscle cells, and cardiomyocytes. We discuss these findings in the context of the proposed models of vertebrate smooth muscle and cardiomyocyte evolution.

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Johnson, C. J., Razy-Krajka, F., & Stolfi, A. (2020). Expression of smooth muscle-like effectors and core cardiomyocyte regulators in the contractile papillae of Ciona. EvoDevo, 11(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13227-020-00162-x

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