Insights into Electroreceptor Development and Evolution from Molecular Comparisons with Hair Cells.


The vertebrate lateral line system comprises a mechanosensory division, with neuromasts containing hair cells that detect local water movement ("distant touch"); and an electrosensory division, with electrosensory organs that detect the weak, low-frequency electric fields surrounding other animals in water (primarily used for hunting). The entire lateral line system was lost in the amniote lineage with the transition to fully terrestrial life; the electrosensory division was lost independently in several lineages, including the ancestors of frogs and of teleost fishes. (Electroreception with different characteristics subsequently evolved independently within two teleost lineages.) Recent gene expression studies in a non-teleost actinopterygian fish suggest that electroreceptor ribbon synapses employ the same transmission mechanisms as hair cell ribbon synapses, and show that developing electrosensory organs express transcription factors essential for hair cell development, including Atoh1 and Pou4f3. Previous hypotheses for electroreceptor evolution suggest either that electroreceptors and hair cells evolved independently in the vertebrate ancestor from a common ciliated secondary cell, or that electroreceptors evolved from hair cells. The close developmental and putative physiological similarities implied by the gene expression data support the latter hypothesis, i.e., that electroreceptors evolved in the vertebrate ancestor as a "sister cell-type" to lateral line hair cells.