The larval nervous system of the solitary tunicate Ciona is a simple model for the study of chordate neurodevelopment. The development and connectivity of the Ciona Motor Ganglion (MG) has been studied in fine detail, but how this important structure develops in other tunicates is not well known. By comparing gene expression patterns in the developing MG of the distantly related tunicate Molgula occidentalis, we found that its patterning is highly conserved compared to the Ciona MG. MG neuronal subtypes in Molgula were specified in the exact same positions as in Ciona, though the timing of subtype-specific gene expression onset was slightly shifted to begin earlier, relative to mitotic exit and differentiation. In transgenic Molgula embryos electroporated with Dmbx reporter plasmids, we were also able to characterize the morphology of the lone pair of descending decussating neurons (ddNs) in Molgula, revealing the same unique contralateral projection seen in Ciona ddNs and their putative vertebrate homologs the Mauthner cells. Although Dmbx expression labels the ddNs in both species, cross-species transgenic assays revealed significant changes to the cis-regulatory logic underlying Dmbx transcription. We found that Dmbx cis-regulatory DNAs from Ciona can drive highly specific reporter gene expression in Molgula ddNs, but Molgula sequences are not active in Ciona ddNs. This acute divergence in the molecular mechanisms that underlie otherwise functionally conserved cis-regulatory DNAs supports the recently proposed idea that the extreme genetic plasticity observed in tunicates may be attributed to the extreme rigidity of the spatial organization of their embryonic cell lineages.
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