In chordates, which comprise urochordates, cephalochordates and vertebrates, the vitamin A-derived morphogen retinoic acid (RA) has a pivotal role during development. Altering levels of endogenous RA signaling during early embryology leads to severe malformations, mainly due to incorrect positional codes specifying the embryonic anteroposterior body axis. In this review, we present our current understanding of the RA signaling pathway and its roles during chordate development. In particular, we focus on the conserved roles of RA and its downstream mediators, the Hox genes, in conveying positional patterning information to different embryonic tissues, such as the endoderm and the central nervous system. We find that some of the control mechanisms governing RA-mediated patterning are well conserved between vertebrates and invertebrate chordates, such as the cephalochordate amphioxus. In contrast, outside the chordates, evidence for roles of RA signaling is scarce and the evolutionary origin of the RA pathway itself thus remains elusive. In sum, to fully understand the evolutionary history of the RA pathway, future research should focus on identification and study of components of the RA signaling cascade in non-chordate deuterostomes (such as hemichordates and echinoderms) and other invertebrates, such as insects, mollusks and cnidarians.
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