Because I couldn’t not post about Dendrogramma

And the deep sea surprises us yet again (photos of the type specimen of Dendrogramma enigmatica from Just et al. [2014]).

I totally ignored the original hype about these beasties. I saw them pop up on I Fucking Love Science the other day, read the headline, decided it was probably another annoyingly sensationalised news story about a moderately strange new species and went on with my life. (The fact that they kinda look like weird flatworms didn’t help) Well, now that I’ve seen the paper, I… nah, I don’t regret the decision to ignore the news story, because hyperbole like that headline about rewriting the tree of life drives me up the wall, but I am glad that I finally checked what the hype was all about.

It’s really cool, after all these years of humanity cataloguing the living world, to find something so weird that basically all we can say about it is that it’s an animal. At this point it’s not clear to me how much of that is genuine weirdness and how much is simply down to the lack of data. The organisms were found in bulk seafloor samples brought up from depths of 400 and 1000 m somewhere off Tasmania nearly thirty years ago, and they are apparently quite poorly preserved. There’s no DNA, though commenters on the PLoS article seem to think it might be possible to get some out of the specimens. (That would be nice!)

According to the authors’ description, the general organisation of Dendrogramma species can be discerned and is much like a cnidarian or a ctenophore – two basic germ layers with thick jelly in between, and a blind gut – but they appear to lack anything that would clearly identify them as a member of either group, such as comb rows or stinging cells. Because they appear to have only two germ layers, the authors conclude they are probably not bilaterians, but because they don’t have diagnostic features of any other kind of animal, and because there’s so much more we don’t know about them, they don’t feel brave enough to place them beyond that.

The beasties are made of a stalk and a flat disc; the mouth opens at the tip of the stalk and the gut extends into the disc, where it bifurcates repeatedly to form dozens of branches. Two comments on the PLoS website point out that this arrangement is a bit like a flatworm – many of which have a long pharynx that they can poke out to feed, and a highly branched intestine occupying most of the body (a lovely diagram and photo can be found in the bottom half of this page).

Superficially at least, it sounds possible that Dendrogramma‘s “stalk” is an extended pharynx. However, flatworms are bilaterians, and between their skin and their gut wall they are full of the tissues of the mesoderm, the third germ layer – muscles, simple kidneys, reproductive organs and quite a lot of cell-rich connective tissue. Just et al.‘s description of Dendrogramma states that the equivalent space in these creatures is filled with mesogloea, i.e. jelly with few or no cells. If Dendrogramma really lacks mesodermal tissues, then it wouldn’t make a very good flatworm! (The paper itself doesn’t discuss the flatworm option at all, presumably for similar reasons.)

Of course, the thing that piqued my interest in Dendrogramma is its supposed resemblance to certain Ediacaran fossils, specifically these ones. It would be awesome if we could demonstrate that the living and the fossil weirdos are related, since then determining what Dendrogramma is would also classify the extinct forms, but I’m not holding my breath on this count. The branching… whatevers in the fossils in question may look vaguely like the branching gut of Dendrogramma, but, as discussed above, so do flatworm guts. The similarity to the fossils may well have nothing to do with actual phylogenetic relatedness, which the authors sound well aware of.

Nature, helpful as always. >_>

It seems all we can do for the moment is wait for more material to come along, hopefully in a good enough state to make detailed investigations including genetic studies. My inner developmental biologist is also praying for embryos, but the gods aren’t generally kind enough to grant me these sorts of wishes 😛

I do quite like the name, though. Mmmmm, Dendrogramma. 🙂



Just J et al. (2014) Dendrogramma, new genus, with two new non-bilaterian species from the marine bathyal of southeastern Australia (Animalia, Metazoa incertae sedis) – with similarities to some medusoids from the Precambrian Ediacara. PLoS ONE 9:e102976

Ctenophore nervous systems redux

… and reasons I suddenly find myself liking Joseph Ryan.

Ryan was the first author on the first ctenophore genome paper, published last December, though I’d known his name long before that thanks to his developmental genetic work on jelly creatures of various kinds. As is clear from the genome study, he leans quite strongly towards the controversial idea that ctenophores represent the sister lineage to all other animals.

And here’s reason one that my eyes suddenly have little cartoon hearts pulsing in their irises upon reading his short perspective paper in Zoology (Ryan, 2014). Throughout the paper, not once does he refer to ctenophores as “the” basal animal lineage. Instead, he uses phrases like “most distant relative to all other animals” or “the sister group to the rest of the animals”.

In other words, he’s scrupulously avoiding my giantest pet peeve, and I’m sure he doesn’t do it to please an obscure blogger, but gods, that’s even better. I don’t want to be pleased, I want evolutionary biology to get rid of stupid anthropocentric ladder-thinking nonsense.

Anyway, the little paper isn’t actually about animal phylogeny, it’s about nervous systems.

Both ctenophore genome papers argued that the ancestors of these pretty beasties might have evolved nervous systems independently of ours. The second one seemed positively convinced of this, but, as Ryan’s review points out, there are other possibilities even assuming that the placement of ctenophores outside the rest of the animals is correct.

While it’s possible that nerve cells and nervous systems evolved twice among the animals – it is equally possible that they have been lost twice (i.e. in sponges and blobby little placozoans). Full-fledged nerve cells wouldn’t be the first things that sponges and blobs have lost.

And Ryan basically wrote this short piece just to point that out. The argument that ctenophore nervous systems are their own invention is based on the absence or strange behaviour of many “conserved” nervous system-related genes. Ctenophores appear to completely lack some common neurotransmitters such as dopamine, as well as a lot of genes/proteins that are necessary for nerve synapses to work in us. Other genes that are “neural” in other animals are present but not associated with the nervous system in ctenophores.

BUT, Ryan cautions, there are also commonalities that shouldn’t be dismissed. While ctenophores can’t make dopamine, they do possess several other messenger molecules common in animal nervous systems. Same goes for the proteins involved in making synapses. Likewise, while they completely lack some of the genes responsible for defining various types of nerve cells (see: Hox genes), other genes involved in the same kind of stuff are definitely there.

The key thing, he says, is to take a closer look at more of these genes and find out what they do by manipulating them. Since there are clearly both similarities and differences, we must assess their extent.

And that, my friends, is the question at the heart of every homology argument ever. How similar is similar enough? Greater minds than mine have struggled with the answer, and I imagine they’ll continue to struggle until we invent time machines or find fossils of every single stage in the evolution of everything.

Until then, I’ll leave you with the closing lines of Ryan’s paper. I may not agree that we’ve “revealed” the position of ctenophores, but I’m absolutely on board with the excitement 🙂

One thing is quite clear: something remarkable happened regarding the evolution of the nervous system very early in animal evolution. Either a nervous system existed in the ancestor and was lost in certain lineages, or ctenophores invented their own nervous system independently (Fig. 1). Either possibility is quite extraordinary. The revelation that ctenophores are the sister group to the rest of animals has sparked a truly exciting debate regarding the evolutionary origins of the nervous system, one that will continue as additional genomic and functional data come to the fore.


Ryan JF (2014) Did the ctenophore nervous system evolve independently? Zoology in press, available online 11/06/2014, doi: 10.1016/j.zool.2014.06.001

The ctenophore conundrum, by popular demand

So, a new ctenophore genome has just been published in Nature (Moroz et al., 2014), it makes some extraordinary claims, and my resident palaeontologist/web-buddy Dave Bapst wants my opinion 😉

Given that I already planned to have an opinion about the first ctenophore genome back in December (Ryan et al., 2013) and miserably failed to finish the post… the temptation is just too strong. (That thesis chapter draft in the other window of MS Word wasn’t going to be finished today anyway  >_>)

Whatever I might seem from words on the internet, I’m not some kind of expert on phylogenetics, so I’m going to use a crutch. I had this idea back when I first read Ryan et al. (2013), because I remember thinking that it was written almost as if Nosenko et al. (2013) had never happened, and I’d really liked Nosenko et al. (as you can guess from the word count of this post), so I was mildly indignant about that. The Nosenko paper is going to be my crutch. (No offence to Hervé Philippe and friends, but there are only so many papers I’m going to reread for an out of the blue blog post 😉 )

Although I’m obviously not writing a public post specifically for a phylogeny nut, I may get somewhat technical, and I’m definitely going to get verbose.


Ctenophores. Comb jellies, sea gooseberries, Venus girdles. They are floaty, ethereal, mesmerizingly beautiful creatures, and I have it on good authority that they are also complete pains in the arse.

Here’s some pretty pictures before it gets too painful 😉 Left: Mnemiopsis leidyi from Ryan et al. (2013); right: Pleurobrachia bachei from Moroz et al. (2014). And a bonus video of a Venus girdle making like an ancient nature spirit. I could watch these beasties all day.


Venus from Sandrine Ruitton on Vimeo.

The problem(s)

And now, the pain. Let’s pull out my trusty old animal phylogeny, because the question marks are once again highly appropriate. (Also, I’m hell-bent on breaking your bandwidth with PICTURES.)


Ryan et al. (2013) helpfully have a figure distilling the ideas people have had about those question marks so far:


Bi = bilaterians, Cn = cnidarians, Ct = ctenophores, Tr = Trichoplax, and Po = sponges (Porifera).

I say “helpfully,” but it’s not all that helpful after all, since pretty much every possible configuration has been proposed. Why is this such a difficult question? Here’s a quick rundown of the problems Nosenko et al.’s study found to affect the question marks:

  1. Fast-evolving protein sequences – these can cause artefacts because too much change overwrites informative changes and creates chance similarities. Excluding faster-evolving sequences from the analysis changes the tree.
  2. Sequence data that don’t conform to the simplifying assumptions of popular evolutionary models – again, this can result in chance similarities and artefacts, and using a poorer model replicates the effects of using less ideal sequences.
  3. Long-branched outgroups – these are the non-animal groups used to place the root of animals. The more distant from animals and less well-sampled the outgroup, the longer the branches it forms, which can attract fast-evolving animal lineages towards the root. In Nosenko et al.’s analyses, even the closest outgroup seemed to cause problems, and removing the outgroup altogether made the conflicts between different models and datasets disappear completely – but this isn’t exactly helpful when you’re looking for the root of the animal tree!

The problem with ctenophores in particular is illustrated by this one of Nosenko et al.’s trees, made from one of their less error-prone datasets:


The ctenophore branch is not only longer overall than pretty much any other in the tree; its length is also very unevenly distributed between the loooong history common to all species and the short unique lineage of each individual species. That is bad news. And it may stay that way forever, because the last common ancestor of living ctenophores may genuinely be very recent, so there’s no way to divide up that long-ass internal branch without a time machine.

Round 1: Nosenko vs. Ryan

In fairness, the Mnemiopsis genome team probably didn’t have a whole lot of time to specifically deal with Nosenko et al.’s points (OTOH, none of those individual points were truly new). The Nosenko paper came out in January 2013, and the Mnemiopsis genome paper was received by Science in July of the same year – I imagine most of the data had been generated way before then, and you can’t just redo all your data analysis and rewrite a paper on short notice.

I’m still going to view Ryan et al. (2013) in the light of Nosenko, because regardless of the genome team’s ability to answer them, some of Nosenko et al.’s points are very relevant to the claims they make. Their biggest claim, of course, being that ctenophores are the sister group to all other animals.

In Nosenko et al.’s experiments, this placement showed up in trees where faster-evolving genes, poorer models or more distant outgroups were used, but not when the slowest-evolving gene set was analysed with the best models and the closest outgroup.

Ryan et al. acknowledge that “supermatrix analyses of the publicly available data are sensitive to gene selection, taxon sampling, model selection, and other factors [cite Nosenko].” Their data are obviously sensitive to such factors. In fact, they behave rather similarly to what I saw in the Nosenko study.

Ryan et al. used two method/model combinations – one of the models was the preferred CAT model of Nosenko et al., and the other was the OK but not great GTR model that CAT beat by miles in terms of actually fitting Nosenko et al.’s data. (Caveat: in the genome paper, the CAT and GTR models were used with different treebuilding methods, so we can’t blame the models for different results with any certainty.) Also, they analysed the data with three different outgroups.

And guess what – the ctenophores-outside-everything tree was best supported with (1) the GTR model, (2) the more distant outgroups. There is not much testing of the effect of gene choice – there were two different data sets, but they were both these massive amalgamations of everything useable, and they also included totally different samples of species.

However, here comes another nod to Nosenko et al. and all the other people who advocated trying things other than “conventional” sequence comparisons through the years. Provided you can securely identify genes across different organisms, you can also try to deduce evolutionary history based on their presences and absences rather than their precise sequences. This is not a foolproof approach because genes can be (commonly) lost or (occasionally) picked up from other organisms, but it is often regarded as less artefact-prone than sequence-based trees.

But does it help with ctenophores? Like the GTR model-based sequence trees, the tree based on gene presence/absence (you obviously need complete genomes for this!) supports ctenophores being the outsider among animals:


My problem with this? Note what else it supports. The white circles indicate groupings that this method had absolutely no doubt about. And these groupings include things that frankly sound like abject nonsense. Here’s one annelid worm (the leech Helobdella) sitting next to a flatworm, while another annelid worm (Capitella) teams up with a limpet right next to a chordate. If anything, that is more controversial than the placement of ctenophores, because we thought we had it settled!

So if we’re concluding that ctenophores are basal to all other animals, why aren’t we also making a fuss about the explosion of phylum Annelida? Surely, if this method gives us strong enough conclusions to arbitrate between different sequence-based hypotheses about ctenophores, it’s strong enough to make those claims too. The cake can’t quite decide if it’s being eaten, I think.

I’m not sure what to think about the sequence trees. I’m far more confident about the presence/absence one. Maybe I’m just demonstrating the Dunning-Kruger effect here, but I’m not buying that tree for a second.

Overall verdict?

Not convinced. Not by a long shot.

Round 2: Nosenko vs. Moroz

The Pleurobrachia genome took me completely by surprise. I’d known Mnemiopsis was sequenced since Ryan et al. (2010). (Three years. Can you imagine the twitching?) I had no idea this other project was happening, so I nearly fell off my chair when Nature dropped it into my RSS reader yesterday. Another ctenophore genome – and another one that supports ctenophore separatism? (This hypothesis is becoming strangely popular…)

Bonus: it’s not just a genome paper, it also describes the transcriptomes of ten different ctenophores. Transcriptomes, the set of all active genes, are a little bit easier to sequence and assemble than genomes, and if you’re thorough they’ll catch most of the genes the organism has, so they can be almost as good for the analysis of gene content.

Which they kind of don’t do properly. There is a discussion of specific gene families that ctenophores lack – including many immune- and nervous system-related genes – but that’s not exactly saying much given that we know even “important” genes can be lost (case in point: the disappearing (Para)Hox genes of Trichoplax). The fact that ctenophores seem to completely lack microRNAs is interesting, but again, it doesn’t mean they never had them. Sponges do have microRNAs but don’t seem to be nearly as big on them as other animals.

As for the global analysis of gene content – I had to chase down a reference (Ptitsyn and Moroz, 2012) to understand what they actually did. As far as I can tell, there is no phylogenetic analysis involved – they just took a tree they already had, and used this method to map gene gains and losses onto that tree. Which is cool if you’re fairly sure about your tree, but pretty much meaningless when the tree is precisely the question. The Mammal is disappointed.

One of the problems with listing genes that aren’t there or don’t work in the “expected” way in ctenophores is that even if they’re not outside everything else, it’s still a distinct possibility that these guys branched off from our lineage before cnidarians did. For example, the Pleurobrachia paper spends a lot of time on “nervous system-specific” genes like elav missing or not being expressed in neurons, and common neurotransmitters like serotonin not being used by ctenophores.

But, assuming that the tree of animals looks something like (sponges + (ctenophores + (cnidarians + bilaterians))), we wouldn’t expect ctenophore nervous systems to share every property that cnidarians and bilaterians share. Remember: (1) sponges don’t have nervous systems, so they’re not much use as a comparison, (2) cnidarians + bilaterians had a longer common ancestry than either did with ctenophores. Genes possessed by sponges PLUS cnidarians and/or bilaterians but missing from ctenophores are more suggestive, but only if you can demonstrate that they weren’t lost. (We’re kind of going in circles here…)

The other problem is that pesky last common ctenophore ancestor. If it really is very recent, then taking even all living ctenophores to represent ctenophore diversity is like taking my close family to represent human diversity. Just like my family contains pale-skinned, lactose tolerant people, it is entirely possible that this lone surviving ctenophore lineage possesses (or lacks) important traits that aren’t at all typical of ctenophores as a whole. Ryan et al.’s supplementary data are clear that at least the Mnemiopsis genome is horribly scrambled, all trace of conserved gene neighbourhoods erased from it. That’s not exactly promising if you’re hoping for “trustworthy” animals.

The actual phylogenetic trees in Moroz et al. (2014) seem to follow an approach of throwing AAAALLL the genes at the problem. The biggest dataset contains 586 genes, compared to 122 in Nosenko et al.’s largest collection, and there is not much filtering by gene properties other than “we can tell what it is”. I have no idea how the CAT + WAG model they used compares to CAT or WAG or GTR on their own; unfortunately, the Nosenko paper doesn’t test that particular setup and this one doesn’t do any model testing. Moroz et al.’s supplementary methods claim it’s pretty good, cite something, and I’m not gonna chase down that reference. (Sorry, I’ve been poring over this for four hours at this point).

Interestingly, the support for ctenophores being apart from other animals increases when they start excluding distant outgroups. The only time it’s low is when they add all ten ctenophores and use fewer genes. Hmm. This is where I would like to hear some real experts’ opinions, because on the face of it, I can’t pinpoint anything obviously wrong. (Other than saying that chucking more genes at a problem tree is perfectly capable of making the problem worse)

TL;DR version: While I’m generally underwhelmed by the gene content stuff, I literally have no idea what to think about the trees.

I’m banking on the hope that someone will do.


And… I think that is all the opinion I’m going to have about ctenophores for a long time. Lunch was a long time ago, my brain is completely fried, and I’m not sure how much of the above actually makes sense. To be clear, I don’t really have a horse in this race, though I’d really like to know the truth. (Fat chance of that, by the looks of it…) I think I’m going to need a bit more convincing before I stop looking sideways at this idea that ctenophores are further from us than sponges. If anything is clear from recent phylogenomics papers, it’s that what data you analyse and how you analyse them makes a huge difference to the result you get, and this is happening with data and methods where it’s not necessarily easy to dismiss an approach as clearly inferior.

It’s a mess, damn it, and I’m not qualified to untangle it. Urgh.



Moroz LL et al. (2014) The ctenophore genome and the evolutionary origin of neural systems. Nature advance online publication, 21/05/2014; doi: 10.1038/nature13400

Nosenko T et al. (2013) Deep metazoan phylogeny: When different genes tell different stories. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 67:223-233

Ptitsyn A & Moroz LL (2012) Computational workflow for analysis of gain and loss of genes in distantly related genomes. BMC Bioinformatics 13:S5

Ryan JF et al. (2010) The homeodomain complement of the ctenophore Mnemiopsis leidyi suggests that Ctenophora and Porifera diverged prior to the ParaHoxozoa. EvoDevo 1:9

Ryan JF et al. (2013) The genome of the ctenophore Mnemiopsis leidyi and its implications for cell type evolution. Science 342:1242592


When I discussed sponge microRNAs last week, I said deep animal phylogeny was difficult. Quite fortuitously, another paper went online recently that explores exactly this difficulty (Nosenko et al., 2013). Following on from the microRNA post, I’ll use this paper as an excuse/guide to discuss the tangled relationships of animals.

First of all, let’s recap the problem. My trusty old family tree of animals just so happens to be an excellent illustration:


When I first made this tree to explain what the hell I was talking about re: the Cambrian creature Nectocaris, I put in some question marks mostly out of laziness. To illustrate why the “old” Nectocaris didn’t make sense, I only needed the relationships of bilaterians among themselves. Everything outside the Bilateria was irrelevant to the little creature’s mystery, so I decided to forgo reading up on them and stay on an uninformed fence.

But, in fact, said fence is not just my half-arsed perch. I appear to share it with an entire, very much whole-arsed field. While now there’s a reasonable agreement over ecdysozoans and deuterostomes and all that jazz, the non-bilaterians still wander all over the place depending on how you do your analysis. Nosenko et al. cite a number of recent large-scale studies, and point out that they totally fail to agree where to put poor Trichoplax and jellies of various kinds. The other thing they fail at is deciding how many branches sponges actually represent (the problem the microRNA study I discussed tried to tackle). To illustrate the extent of the chaos, I sketched the phylogenies six recent studies cited by Nosenko and colleagues came up with (sponge lineages are marked by dots):


Remarkably, all six studies agree on the basic deuterostome-ecdysozoan-lophotrochozoan arrangement inside Bilateria in spite of using different sets of bilaterian species. In contrast, the non-bilaterian animals – sponges of all kinds, cnidarians, ctenophores and Trichoplax – appear in pretty much every conceivable configuration.

A plethora of pitfalls

Why? What makes these questions so difficult that datasets made of 100+ genes from dozens of species representing all major animal groups and using the best available methods have this much trouble answering them?

Time is probably not the issue, or at least not in the simple sense of “it all happened too long ago”. The Nosenko paper brings up the example of fungi, which are roughly as ancient (or, in the context of all living things, as young) as animals. Studies that tried to use the exact same set of genes to analyse the relationships within each group could apparently produce a nice clear tree for fungi. Animals? A whole lot of noise.

Perhaps the “tree” of animals is really more like Rokas and Carroll’s (2006) evolutionary bushes, with its base branching so quickly that genes didn’t have time to accumulate many informative changes between one split and the next. Perhaps it even happened so fast that ancient within-species sequence variation was carried through several such events, resulting in what population geneticists call incomplete lineage sorting, a situation where the history of genes is not the same as the history of species.

Perhaps we haven’t got a good enough sample of genes, animals, or both.

If early animal evolution was bush-like, only a large amount of good data has any hope of accurately resolving how it went. But finding suitable genes for phylogenetic analysis is not easy. They have to be known in all of our species. They should have unambiguous identities so we know we’re actually comparing the same gene across species. They should evolve slowly enough that chance hasn’t had time to wash away their records of relatedness.

Likewise, picking suitable species can be difficult. Aside from the availability of sequences, the two greatest problems are taxon sampling and long branches. Good taxon sampling means covering the diversity of a group. So for example, if you have to pick three vertebrates, you don’t want them all to be mammals. A mammal, a shark and, say, a bony fish would be a much more representative sample.

Long branches are the bogeyman of phylogenetics. “Long” here means many evolutionary changes compared to other lineages in your sample. Similarities in gene/protein sequences are not always due to shared ancestry: because there’s a limited number of letters in the DNA and protein alphabets, sometimes they happen just by chance. If you have two unusually long branches, they might have a lot of these chance similarities, many more than either of them shares with its true relatives by common ancestry. Some of the newer changes might also have overwritten the older similarities linking them with their real families, a problem known as saturation. The overall outcome is that long branches attract each other.

Last but not least, perhaps the assumptions we put into our analyses don’t actually fit the data. All phylogenetic analyses are based on a model of evolution. For molecular data, these models specify, for example, how likely different sequence changes are, and which bases or amino acids are commonest and rarest. All analyses also need a way of picking the best tree, which range from simply choosing the one with the fewest changes to choices based on complicated probability theory. Sometimes, models and methods still work reasonably well when their assumptions are violated, but, as you might expect, counting on that is generally a stupid idea.

Nosenko et al. (2013) come to the conclusion that the issue of non-bilaterian animal phylogeny is plagued by pretty much the whole package.

Dissecting the Problem

First, studies may have increased the size of their datasets by incorporating less than ideal genes. To test the effect of gene sampling, Nosenko et al. (2013) divided their collection of 122 genes into two parts. One consisted of genes involved in protein synthesis, mostly genes encoding ribosomal proteins, which all evolve very slowly. The other was a mixed bag of non-ribosomal genes with all sorts of functions and evolutionary rates.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the latter set displayed a much higher level of saturation. Accordingly, when they analysed the ribosomal dataset with models of evolution that are more prone to errors due to saturation, they got the same trees they’d seen using more accurate models on the non-ribosomal data. Clearly, saturation, gene and model choice are affecting the answers they’re getting, and they are all problems that would affect your average phylogenomic study.

Second, the authors found every indication of a serious long-branch problem. In most phylogenetic trees, the longest branch is the outgroup. Outgroups are organisms outside your group of interest (the ingroup). Similarities between the outgroup and members of the ingroup are likely to have evolved before the origin of the ingroup, therefore they can be used to locate the root of the ingroup tree. However, outgroups are rarely sampled as well as ingroups, hence they tend to form long branches, making them a liability.

In the case of animals, removing the outgroup cleared the disagreements between the different gene sets, demonstrating that some of them had been due to long-branch artefacts. (Of course, without an outgroup you don’t know which animal lineages split first, which makes this solution not much use at all for important evolutionary questions like what the common ancestor of all animals looked like.)

Likewise, using a more distant outgroup changed the trees considerably. Ctenophores are worth special mention here. When Dunn et al. (2008) placed these jellyfish-like creatures as the sister group to all other animals, it was an odd, unexpected result. Well, ctenophore genomes evolve ridiculously fast, and there’s a good chance that their position “way out there” is an artefact of that. In Nosenko et al.‘s analyses, they ended up in the Dunn position when the more saturated non-ribosomal data were used – or when the ribosomal dataset was analysed with a more distant outgroup. When everything possible was done to reduce long-branch issues, they stayed deep in the crown of the tree next to cnidarians.

Fourth, the assumptions of even the best evolutionary model don’t take into account an annoying property of protein sequences: their overall amino acid compositions can differ across lineages. Changing the entire makeup of an organism’s protein complement involves changes in evolutionary patterns that none of the models account for. Once again, those damned ctenophores are one of the problem taxa with “deviant” sequence compositions. (The even worse news is that the closest available outgroups also differ from typical animals in this respect.)

Fifth, taxon sampling is influencing what you get. For example, the more sponges Nosenko et al. included, the more support they got for sponges being a single lineage. Ctenophores probably also suffer from this problem. For one thing, they’re very poorly known in almost every way that is relevant to picking species for phylogenetic analysis.

For another, they may actually have an additional problem that is literally impossible to crack – phylogenetic analysis of ctenophores themselves and a look at their fossil record hint that most ctenophore lineages have died out, with existing species all coming from a relatively recent common ancestor. That would make the entire phylum incurably long-branched no matter how many living species you throw at your datasets!

And finally, the ribosomal dataset that was the least prone to long-branch artefacts and the most informative about the deepest branches in animal phylogeny comes with a big caveat: it’s not a random selection of genes. In fact, all of these genes are interacting parts of a single system, which means they might not evolve independently (in the statistical sense). Are they all affected by a common set of biases, and does it render them unsuitable for recovering the true history of animals? We don’t yet know.

Hope dies last…

Being the phylogeny nut that I am, I really enjoyed this dissection of a thorny problem. At the same time, the results are kind of depressing. (Especially if, like me, you’re interested in early animal evolution.) No matter how carefully you set up your analysis, biases lurk around the corner waiting to jump on you and destroy your conclusions. You have a choice between not knowing where to root the tree of animals and being screwed by the outgroup. Well-worn measures of statistical confidence can support contradictory hypotheses. Ctenophores are fucking hopeless.

Is there anything we can do about this conundrum? Nosenko et al. conclude their paper on a somewhat hopeful note. There are other methods in molecular phylogenetics than simple sequence comparison. Although they’ve been no more helpful so far than traditional sequence analysis, we’re getting more and more full genome sequences from all over the animal kingdom. There’s more to look at than ever. Perhaps, one day, we’ll find a tool that can trim this thorny beast of a bush (or bush of beasts?) into shape.

Meanwhile, the quandary of deep animal phylogeny stands as a reminder that science is not all-powerful. The universe is a puzzle, but we have no reason to assume that nature left us enough information to solve it all. Which, as far as I’m concerned, shouldn’t stop us from trying. 😉



Dunn CW et al. (2008) Broad phylogenomic sampling improves resolution of the animal tree of life. Nature 452:745-749

Erwin DH et al. (2011) The Cambrian conundrum: early divergence and later ecological success in the early history of animals. Science 334:1091-1097

Nosenko T et al. (2013) Deep metazoan phylogeny: when different genes tell different stories. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution (in press), doi: 10.1016/j.ympev.2013.01.010

Philippe H et al. (2009) Phylogenomics revivew traditional views on deep animal relationships. Current Biology 19:706-712

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Sperling EA et al. (2009) Phylogenetic-signal dissection of nuclear housekeeping genes supports the paraphyly of sponges and the monophyly of Eumetazoa. Molecular Biology and Evolution 26:2261-2274

Another man after my own heart

It’s not terribly hard to turn me into a squealing fangirl. One of the ways is to agree with me eloquently and/or share my pet peeves. Another is to give me lightbulb moments. A third is to disagree with me in a well-reasoned, intelligent way. And finally, if I see you thoughtfully examining your own thinking, you are awesome by definition. Michaël Manuel’s monster review of body symmetry and polarity in animals (Manuel, 2009) did all of the above.

(In case you wondered, that means a long, squeeful meandering >.>)

Manuel writes about the evolution of two fundamental properties of animal body plans [1]: symmetry and polarity. You probably have a good intuitive understanding of symmetry, but here’s a definition anyway. An object is symmetrical if you can perform some transformation (rotation, reflection, shifting etc.) on it and get the same shape. Polarity is a different but equally simple concept – it basically means that one end of an object is different from the other, like the head and tail of a cat or the inner and outer arcs of a rainbow.

I can’t say that I’d thought an awful lot about either before I came across this review, so it’s not really surprising that I had lightbulbs going off in my head left and right while I was reading it. Because I didn’t think deeply about symmetry and polarity and complexity, I basically held the mainstream view I – and, I suspect, most of the mainstream – mostly picked up by osmosis.

That meant I fell victim to my own biggest pet peeve big time – I believed, without good reason and without even realising, that the body plan symmetries of major lineages of living animals represented successive increases in complexity. Sponges are kind of asymmetrical, cnidarians and ctenophores are radially symmetrical, and bilaterians such as ourselves have (more or less) mirror image symmetry, and these kinds of symmetry increase in complexity in this order. Only… they aren’t, and they don’t.

It turns out that this guy not only shares my pet peeve but uses it to demolish my long-held hidden assumptions. Double fangirl points!

Let there be light(bulbs)!

Problem number one with the traditional view – aside from ignoring that evolution ain’t a ladder – is that the distribution of symmetry types among animals is a little more complicated. Most importantly, most kinds of sponges are not asymmetrical. Most species may be, but that’s not the same thing. You see, most sponge species are demosponges, which make up only one of the four great divisions among sponges. Demosponges do have a tendency towards looking a bit amorphous, but the other three – calcareous sponges, glass sponges and homoscleromorphs – usually are some kind of symmetrical. All in all, the evidence points away from an asymmetrical animal ancestor. (Below: calcareous sponges being blatantly symmetrical, from Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur.)

The second problem is that my old view ignores at least one important kind of symmetry. Some “radially” symmetrical animals are actually closer to cylindrical symmetry. To understand the difference, imagine rotating a brick and a straight piece of pipe around their respective long axes. You can rotate the pipe as much or as little as you like, it’ll look exactly the same. In contrast, the only rotation that brings the brick back onto itself is turning it by 180° or multiples thereof. A pipe, with its infinitely many rotational symmetries, is cylindrically symmetrical, while the brick has a finite number of rotational symmetries [2], making it radially symmetrical.

Problem number three is that bilateral symmetry is actually no more complex than radial symmetry! What does “complexity” mean in this context? Manuel defines it as the number of coordinates required to specify any point in the animal’s body. In an animal with cylindrical symmetry, you only need a maximum of two: where along the main body axis and how far from the main body axis you are. Everything else is irrelevant, since these are the only axes along which the animal may be polarised. (Add any other polarity axis, and you’ve lost the cylindrical symmetry.)

Take a radially symmetrical creature, like a jellyfish. These also have a main rotational axis and an inside-outside axis of polarity. However, now the animal’s circumference is also divided up into regions, like slices in a cake. How does a skin cell around a baby jelly’s mouth know whether it’s to grow out into a tentacle or contribute to the space between tentacles? That is an extra instruction, an extra layer of complexity. We’re up to three. (Incidentally, here’s some jellyfish symmetry from Haeckel’s Kunstformen. [Here‘s photos of the real animal] A big cheat he may have been, but ol’ Ernst Haeckel certainly had an eye for beauty!)

And with that, jellies and their kin essentially catch up to the basic bilaterian plan. Because what do you need to specify a worm? You need a head-to-tail coordinate, you need a top-to-bottom one, and you need to say how far from the plane of symmetry you are. Still only three! Many bilaterians, including us, added a fourth coordinate by having different left and right sides, but that’s almost certainly not how we started when we split from the cnidarian lineage. (Below: radial symmetry doesn’t hold a monopoly on beauty! Three-striped flatworm [Pseudoceros tristriatus] by wildsingapore.)

Not only that, but Manuel argues that there’s very little evidence bilateral symmetry evolved from radial symmetry. By his reckoning, the most likely symmetry of the cnidarian-bilaterian common ancestor was cylindrical and not radial (more on this later, though). Thus the (mostly) radial cnidarians and the (mostly) bilateral bilaterians represent separate elaborations of a cylinder rather than stages in the same process.

There were a bunch more smaller lightbulb moments, but I’m already running long, so let’s get on to other things.

Respectful disagreement

I think my disagreements with Manuel’s review are more of degree than of kind. Our fundamental difference of opinion comes back to the symmetries of various ancestors and the evidence for them. He argues that key ancestors in animal phylogeny – that of cnidarians + bilaterians, that of cnidarians + bilaterians + ctenophores, and that of all animals – were cylindrical. (Below is the reference tree Manuel uses for his discussion, with symmetry types indicated by the little icons.)


I think he may well be correct in his conclusions, but I’m not entirely comfortable with his reasons. For example, he infers that the last common ancestor of cnidarians and ctenophores was cylindrical. One of his main arguments is that the repeated structures that “break up the cylinder” to confer radial symmetry are not the same in these two phyla. I think this is an intelligent point a smart guy who knows his zoology would make, so disagreement with it becomes debate as opposed to steamrolling [3].

Why I still disagree? As I said, it comes down to degrees and not kinds. Manuel considers the above evidence against a radially symmetrical common ancestor. I consider it lack of evidence for same. The situation reminds me of Erwin and Davidson (2002), which is also one of my favourite papers ever. They raise perhaps the most important point one could make about comparative developmental genetics: homologous pathways could have been present in common ancestors without the complex structures now generated by those pathways being there. Likewise, I think, radial symmetry could have been there in the common ancestor of cnidarians and ctenophores while none of the complex radially symmetrical structures (tentacles, stomach pouches, comb rows etc.) in the living animals were. Perhaps there were simpler divisions of cell types or whatnot that gave rise to the more overt radial symmetry of jellyfish, sea anemones and comb jellies.

In a related argument, Manuel discusses the homology (or lack thereof) of the dorsoventral axis in bilaterians and the so-called directive axis in sea anemones. Sea anemones actually show hints of bilateral symmetry, which prompted some authors (e.g. Baguñà et al., 2008) to argue that this bilateral symmetry and ours was inherited from a common ancestor (i.e. the cnidarian-bilaterian ancestor was bilateral).

I agree with Manuel that the developmental genetic evidence for this is equivocal at best. I even agree with him that developmental genetics isn’t decisive evidence for homology even if it matches better than it actually does in this case. But again, once the genetic evidence is dismissed as inconclusive, he relies on the non-homology of bilaterally symmetrical structures to conclude non-homology of bilateral symmetry. Again, I think this is a plausible but premature inference. Since I’m not sure whether homology or independent origin of bilateral symmetry is the better default hypothesis in this case, and I don’t think the evidence for/against either is convincing, I actually wouldn’t come down on either side as of yet.

But I can see his point, and that’s really cool.

Why else you’re awesome, Michaël Manuel…

Because you have a whole rant about “basal lineages”. I grinned like a maniac throughout your penultimate paragraph. Incidentally, you might have given me another favourite paper – anything with “basal baloney” in its title sounds like it’s worth a few squees of its own!

Because you apply critical thinking to your own thinking. See where we disagreed, non-homology of structures vs. symmetries, evidence against vs no evidence for, and all that? After you made the argument from non-homology of structures, I expected you to leave it at that. And you didn’t. You went and acknowledged its limitations, even though you stood by your original conclusions in the end.

Because you reminded me that radial symmetry is similar to metamerism/segmentation. I’d thought of that before, but it sort of went on holiday for a long time. Connections, yay!

Because you were suspicious about sponges’ lack of Hox/ParaHox genes. And how right you were!


Phew, that turned out rather longer and less coherent than I intended. And I didn’t even cover half of the stuff in my notes. I obviously really, really loved this paper…


[1] Or any body plan, really…

[2] Astute readers might have noticed that a brick has more than one axis of symmetry, plus several planes of symmetry as well. So it’s not only radially but also bilaterally symmetrical. The one thing it certainly isn’t is cylindrical 😉

[3] Not to say I don’t enjoy steamrolling obvious nonsense, but I also like growing intellectually, and steamrolling obvious nonsense rarely stretches the mind muscles…



Baguñà J et al. (2008) Back in time: a new systematic proposal for the Bilateria. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 363:1481-1491

Erwin DH & Davidson EH (2002) The last common bilaterian ancestor. Development 129:3021-3032

Manuel M (2009) Early evolution of symmetry and polarity in metazoan body plans. Comptes Rendus Biologies 332:184-209