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Dr. Arendt Group is intrigued by one of the remaining great mysteries in animal evolution: how did our central nervous system (CNS) come into existence? What did it look like at first and how did it function? They are especially interested in the CNS of an extinct animal known as Urbilateria, the last common ancestor of humans, flies and most other ‘higher’ animals that live today, which lived some 600 million years ago in the ocean.
Dr. Arendt lab has chosen to investigate a new molecular animal model, the marine annelid Platynereis dumerilii. As a ‘living fossil’, Platynereis represents an ideal connecting link between vertebrates and the fast evolving protostome models, Drosophila and Caenorhabditis. Platynereis is amenable to high throughput imaging techniques and functional interference approaches, for example the first genetic knockout lines have been generated. With the recent development of the PrImR (Profiling by Image Registration) resource, Platynereis has become the first animal model for which gene expression profiling data can be obtained in cellular resolution for the whole organism. Dr. Arendt Group has discovered that their brains harbour sensory-associative parts and a neurosecretory centre that corresponds to the vertebrate pallium and hypothalamus, respectively. A clear picture is emerging that the Platynereis brain harbours many cell types so far known only for vertebrates, but in a much simpler and different overall arrangement, revolutionising our current understanding of brain evolution.
To broaden their comparative approach, they have introduced two new model species to the lab, the lancelet amphioxus and the sea anemone Nematostella, representing distinct divisions of the animal kingdom: chordates and cnidarians. Amphioxus has a very simple brain uniting invertebrate- and vertebrate-like features. The Nematostella nervous system is very simple and is a good proxy for an early stage of nervous system evolution. Their aim is to gain a systems view of the Platynereis brain and nervous system and to track the evolutionary history of all constituent cell types by identifying and investigating their evolutionary counterparts in sea anemone and amphioxus. This will involve investigations of cell type-specific gene regulatory networks in all species as well as neurobiological and behavioural approaches.