The Evolutionary Emergence of Vertebrates From Among Their Spineless Relatives

PCJ Donoghue, MA Purnell

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

6 Citations (Scopus)


The evolutionary origin of vertebrates has been debated ad nauseam by anatomists, paleontologists, embryologists, and physiologists, but it is only now that molecular phylogenetics is providing a more rigorous framework for the placement of vertebrates among their invertebrate relatives that we can begin to arrive at concrete conclusions concerning the nature of ancient ancestors and the sequence in which characteristic anatomical features were acquired. Vertebrates tunicates and cephalochordates together comprise the chordate phylum, which along with echinoderms and hemichordates constitute the deuterostomes. The origin of vertebrates and of jawed vertebrates is characterized by a doubling of the vertebrate genome, leading to hypotheses that this genomic event drove organismal macroevolution. However, this perspective of evolutionary history, based on living organisms alone, is an artifact. Phylogenetic trees that integrate fossil vertebrates among their living relatives demonstrate the gradual and piecemeal assembly of the gnathostome body plan. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to demonstrate gradual assembly of the vertebrate body plan. This is not because vertebrates are irreducibly complex but because many of the characters that distinguish vertebrates from invertebrates are embryological and cellular and, therefore, inherently unfossilizable.
Translated title of the contributionThe Evolutionary Emergence of Vertebrates From Among Their Spineless Relatives
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)204 - 212
Number of pages9
JournalEvolution: Education & Outreach
Publication statusPublished - May 2009

Bibliographical note

Publisher: Springer Science


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