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A new look at the ventral nerve centre of Sagitta: implications for the phylogenetic position of Chaetognatha (arrow worms) and the evolution of the bilaterian nervous system

Steffen Harzsch1* and Carsten HG Müller2

Author Affiliations

1 Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Department of Evolutionary Neuroethology, Beutenberg Campus, Hans-Knöll-Str. 8, 07745 Jena, Germany

2 Universität Rostock, Institut für Biowissenschaften, Allgemeine und Spezielle Zoologie, Universitätsplatz 2, 18051 Rostock, Germany

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Frontiers in Zoology 2007, 4:14  doi:10.1186/1742-9994-4-14

Published: 18 May 2007



The Chaetognatha (arrow worms) are a group of marine carnivores whose phylogenetic relationships are still vigorously debated. Molecular studies have as yet failed to come up with a stable hypothesis on their phylogenetic position. In a wide range of metazoans, the nervous system has proven to provide a wealth of characters for analysing phylogenetic relationships (neurophylogeny). Therefore, in the present study we explored the structure of the ventral nerve centre ("ventral ganglion") in Sagitta setosa with a set of histochemical and immunohistochemical markers.


In specimens that were immunolabeled for acetylated-alpha tubulin the ventral nerve centre appeared to be a condensed continuation of the peripheral intraepidermal nerve plexus. Yet, synapsin immunolocalization showed that the ventral nerve centre is organized into a highly ordered array of ca. 80 serially arranged microcompartments. Immunohistochemistry against RFamide revealed a set of serially arranged individually identifiable neurons in the ventral nerve centre that we charted in detail.


The new information on the structure of the chaetognath nervous system is compared to previous descriptions of the ventral nerve centre which are critically evaluated. Our findings are discussed with regard to the debate on nervous system organisation in the last common bilaterian ancestor and with regard to the phylogenetic affinities of this Chaetognatha. We suggest to place the Chaetognatha within the Protostomia and argue against hypotheses which propose a deuterostome affinity of Chaetognatha or a sister-group relationship to all other Bilateria.