Evolution of male tail development in rhabditid nematodes related to Caenorhabditis elegans

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The evolutionary pathway that has led to male tails of diverse morphology among species of the nematode family Rhabditidae was reconstructed. This family includes the well-studied model species Caenorhabditis elegans. By relating the steps of male tail morphological evolution to the phenotypic changes brought about by developmental mutations induced experimentally in C. elegans, the goal is to identify genes responsible for morphological evolution. The varying morphological characters of the male tails of several rhabditid species have been described previously (Fitch and Emmons, 1995, Dev. Biol. 170:564-582). The developmental events preceding differentiation of the adult structures have also been analyzed; in many cases the origins of varying adult morphological characters were traced to differences during ontogeny. In the present work, the evolutionary changes producing these differences were reconstructed in the context of the four possible phylogenies supported independently by sequences of 18S ribosomal RNA genes (rDNA). Two or more alternative states were defined for 36 developmental and adult morphological characters. These characters alone do not provide sufficient data to resolve most species relationships; however, when combined with the rDNA characters, they provide stronger support for one of the four rDNA phylogenies. Assuming a model of ordered transformations for multistate developmental characters generally results in greater resolution. Transformations between character states can be assigned unequivocally by parsimony to unambiguous branches for most of the characters. Correlations are thereby revealed for some of the developmental characters, indicating a probability of a shared developmental or genetic regulatory pathway. Four of the unequivocal character state changes on unambiguously supported branches closely resemble the phenotypic changes brought about by known mutations in C. elegans. These mutations define genes that are known to act in genetic regulatory hierarchies controlling pattern formation, differentiation, and morphogenesis. Although these studies are still at an early stage, these results strongly suggest that parallel studies of developmental mutants in C. elegans and of morphological and developmental evolution among related nematodes will help define genetic changes underlying the evolution of form.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)145-179
Number of pages35
JournalSystematic Biology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1997


  • Caenorhabditis elegans
  • Character analysis
  • Evolution of development
  • Ontogeny
  • Phylogeny

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Genetics


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