All chordates share several characteristic features including a dorsal hollow neural tube, a notochord, a pharynx and an endostyle. Unlike other chordate taxa, ascidians have a biphasic life-history with two distinct body plans. During metamorphosis, the larval nerve cord and notochord degenerate and the pharyngeal gill slits and endostyle form. While ascidians, like other marine invertebrates, metamorphose in response to specific environmental cues, it remains unclear how these cues trigger metamorphosis. We have identified a novel gene (Hemps) which encodes a protein with a putative secretion signal sequence and four epidermal growth factor (EGF)-like repeats which is a key regulator of metamorphosis in the ascidian Herdmania curvata. Expression of Hemps increases markedly when the swimming tadpole larva becomes competent to undergo metamorphosis and then during the first 24 hours of metamorphosis. The Hemps protein is localised to the larval papillae and anterior epidermis of the larva in the region known to be required for metamorphosis. When the larva contacts an inductive cue the protein is released, spreading posteriorly and into the tunic as metamorphosis progresses. Metamorphosis is blocked by incubating larvae in anti-Hemps antibodies prior to the addition of the cue. Addition of recombinant Hemps protein to competent larvae induces metamorphosis in a concentration-dependent manner. A subgroup of genes are specifically induced during this process. These results demonstrate that the Hemps protein is a key regulator of ascidian metamorphosis and is distinct from previously described inducers of this process in terrestrial arthropods and aquatic vertebrates.

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