The origin of novelty is one of the least understood evolutionary phenomena. One approach to study evolutionary novelty comes from developmental biology. During developmental cell fate specification of the nematode Pristionchus pacificus (Diplogastridae), five cell fates can be distinguished within a group of twelve ventral epidermal cells. The differentiation pattern of individual cells includes programmed cell death, cell fusion and vulval differentiation after induction by the gonad. A cell lineage comparison among species of seven different genera of the Diplogastridae indicates that the differentiation pattern of ventral epidermal cells is highly conserved. Despite this morphological conservation, cell ablation experiments indicate many independent alterations of underlying mechanisms of cell fate specification. Cell fusion and individual cell competence change during evolution as well as the differentiation property in response to inductive signaling. These results suggest that developmental mechanisms, some of which are redundantly involved in vulval fate specification of the genetic model organism Caenorhabditis elegans, can evolve without concomitant morphological change.

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