An essential component of animal nervous systems—sodium channels—evolved prior to the evolution of those systems, researchers from The University of Texas at Austin have discovered.
“The first nervous systems appeared in jellyfish-like animals six hundred million years ago or so,” says Harold Zakon, professor of neurobiology, “and it was thought that sodium channels evolved around that time. We have now discovered that sodium channels were around well before nervous systems evolved.”
Zakon, Hillis and Liebeskind discovered the genes for such sodium channels hiding within an organism that isn’t even made of multiple cells, much less any neurons. The single-celled organism is a choanoflagellate, and it is distantly related to multi-cellular animals such as jellyfish and humans.
Sodium channels are an integral part of a neuron’s complex machinery. The channels are like floodgates lodged throughout a neuron’s levee-like cellular membrane. When the channels open, sodium floods through the membrane into the neuron, and this generates nerve impulses.
Because the sodium channel genes were found in choanoflagellates, the scientists propose that the genes originated not only before the advent of the nervous system, but even before the evolution of multicellularity itself.
And here’s the abstract from the study:
Voltage-dependent sodium channels are believed to have evolved from calcium channels at the origin of the nervous system. A search of the genome of a single-celled choanoflagellate (the sister group of animals) identified a gene that is homologous to animal sodium channels and has a putative ion selectivity filter intermediate between calcium and sodium channels. Searches of a wide variety of animal genomes, including representatives of each basal lineage, revealed that similar homologs were retained in most lineages. One of these, the Placozoa, does not possess a nervous system. We cloned and sequenced the full choanoflagellate channel and parts of two placozoan channels from mRNA, showing that they are expressed. Phylogenetic analysis clusters the genes for these channels with other known sodium channels. From this phylogeny we infer ancestral states of the ion selectivity filter and show that this state has been retained in the choanoflagellate and placozoan channels. We also identify key gene duplications and losses and show convergent amino acid replacements at important points along the animal lineage.
I need to read this study, for not only does it show the crucial channel for generating nerve impulses long predates the existence of nervous tissue, but “We also…show convergent amino acid replacements at important points along the animal lineage.”