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Vertebrates have evolved the most sophisticated nervous systems we know. These differ from the nervous systems of invertebrates in several ways, including the evolution of new cell types, and the emergence and elaboration of patterning mechanisms to organise cells in time and space. Vertebrates also generally have many more cells in their central nervous systems than invertebrates, and an increase in neural cell number may have contributed to the sophisticated anatomy of the brain and spinal cord. Here, we study how increased cell number evolved in the vertebrate central nervous system, investigating the regulation of cell proliferation in the lamprey spinal cord. Markers of proliferation show that a ventricular progenitor zone is found throughout the lamprey spinal cord. We show that inhibition of Notch signalling disrupts the maintenance of this zone. When Notch is blocked, progenitor cells differentiate precociously, the proliferative ventricular zone is lost and differentiation markers become expressed throughout the spinal cord. Comparison with other chordates suggests that the emergence of a persistent Notch-regulated proliferative progenitor zone was a crucial step for the evolution of vertebrate spinal cord complexity.

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Coe, Evolution, Lamprey, Notch signalling, PCNA, Proliferation, Spinal cord