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In tunicates, the coronal organ represents a sentinel checking particle entrance into the pharynx. The organ differentiates from an anterior embryonic area considered a proto-placode. For their embryonic origin, morphological features and function, coronal sensory cells have been hypothesized to be homologues to vertebrate hair cells. However, vertebrate hair cells derive from a posterior placode. This contradicts one of the principle historical criteria for homology, similarity of position, which could be taken as evidence against coronal cells/hair cells homology. In the tunicates Ciona intestinalis and C. robusta, we found that the coronal organ expresses genes (Atoh, Notch, Delta-like, Hairy-b, and Musashi) characterizing vertebrate neural and hair cell development. Moreover, coronal cells exhibit a complex synaptic connectivity pattern, and express neurotransmitters (Glu, ACh, GABA, 5-HT, and catecholamines), or enzymes for their synthetic machinery, involved in hair cell activity. Lastly, coronal cells express the Trpa gene, which encodes an ion channel expressed in hair cells. These data lead us to hypothesize a model in which competence to make secondary mechanoreceptors was initially broadly distributed through placode territories, but has become confined to different placodes during the evolution of the vertebrate and tunicate lineages.

Original publication




Journal article


J Comp Neurol

Publication Date





957 - 971


Ciona intestinalis, Ciona robusta, RRID: AB_2314195, RRID: AB_476667, hair cell, ion channel, neurotransmitter, synapse