Acoelomorpha: earliest branching bilaterians or deuterostomes?

Iñaki Ruiz-Trillo*, Jordi Paps

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article (Academic Journal)peer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)
113 Downloads (Pure)


The Acoelomorpha is an animal group comprised by nearly 400 species of misleadingly inconspicuous flatworms. Despite this, acoelomorphs have been at the centre of a heated debate about the origin of bilaterian animals for 150 years. The animal tree of life has undergone major changes during the last decades, thanks largely to the advent of molecular data together with the development of more rigorous phylogenetic methods. There is now a relatively robust backbone of the animal tree of life. However, some crucial nodes remain contentious, especially the node defining the root of Bilateria. Some studies situate Acoelomorpha (and Xenoturbellida) as the sister group of all other bilaterians, while other analyses group them within the deuterostomes which instead suggests that the last common bilaterian ancestor directly gave rise to deuterostomes and protostomes. The resolution of this node will have a profound impact on our understanding of animal/bilaterian evolution. In particular, if acoelomorphs are the sister group to Bilateria, it will point to a simple nature for the first bilaterian. Alternatively, if acoelomorphs are deuterostomes, this will imply that they are the result of secondary simplification. Here, we review the state of this question and provide potential ways to solve this long-standing issue. Specifically, we argue for the benefits of (1) obtaining additional genomic data from acoelomorphs, in particular from taxa with slower evolutionary rates; (2) the development of new tools to analyse the data; and (3) the use of metagenomics or metatranscriptomics data. We believe the combination of these three approaches will provide a definitive answer as to the position of the acoelomorphs in the animal tree of life.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)391-399
Number of pages9
JournalOrganisms Diversity and Evolution
Issue number2
Early online date10 Oct 2015
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2016


  • Acoela
  • Acoelomorpha
  • Bilateria
  • Metazoa
  • Phylogeny


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