Segmentation (biology)

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Vertebrates have a segmented vertebral column. Gray 111 - Vertebral column.png
Vertebrates have a segmented vertebral column.

Segmentation in biology is the division of some animal and plant body plans into a series of repetitive segments. This article focuses on the segmentation of animal body plans, specifically using the examples of the taxa Arthropoda, Chordata, and Annelida. These three groups form segments by using a "growth zone" to direct and define the segments. While all three have a generally segmented body plan and use a growth zone, they use different mechanisms for generating this patterning. Even within these groups, different organisms have different mechanisms for segmenting the body. Segmentation of the body plan is important for allowing free movement and development of certain body parts. It also allows for regeneration in specific individuals.



Segmentation is a difficult process to satisfactorily define. Many taxa (for example the molluscs) have some form of serial repetition in their units but are not conventionally thought of as segmented. Segmented animals are those considered to have organs that were repeated, or to have a body composed of self-similar units, but usually it is the parts of an organism that are referred to as being segmented. [1]


Illacme plenipes, a millipede with 170 segments and 662 legs Illacme plenipes female with 170 segments and 662 legs (SPC000931) - ZooKeys-241-077-g006.jpeg
Illacme plenipes , a millipede with 170 segments and 662 legs

Segmentation in animals typically falls into three types, characteristic of different arthropods, vertebrates, and annelids. Arthropods such as the fruit fly form segments from a field of equivalent cells based on transcription factor gradients. Vertebrates like the zebrafish use oscillating gene expression to define segments known as somites. Annelids such as the leech use smaller blast cells budded off from large teloblast cells to define segments. [2]


Expression of Hox genes in the body segments of different groups of arthropod, as traced by evolutionary developmental biology. The Hox genes 7, 8, and 9 correspond in these groups but are shifted (by heterochrony) by up to three segments. Segments with maxillipeds have Hox gene 7. Fossil trilobites probably had three body regions, each with a unique combination of Hox genes. Arthropod segment Hox gene expression.svg
Expression of Hox genes in the body segments of different groups of arthropod, as traced by evolutionary developmental biology. The Hox genes 7, 8, and 9 correspond in these groups but are shifted (by heterochrony) by up to three segments. Segments with maxillipeds have Hox gene 7. Fossil trilobites probably had three body regions, each with a unique combination of Hox genes.

Although Drosophila segmentation is not representative of the arthropod phylum in general, it is the most highly studied. Early screens to identify genes involved in cuticle development led to the discovery of a class of genes that was necessary for proper segmentation of the Drosophila embryo. [3]

To properly segment the Drosophila embryo, the anterior-posterior axis is defined by maternally supplied transcripts giving rise to gradients of these proteins. [2] [3] [4] This gradient then defines the expression pattern for gap genes, which set up the boundaries between the different segments. The gradients produced from gap gene expression then define the expression pattern for the pair-rule genes. [2] [4] The pair-rule genes are mostly transcription factors, expressed in regular stripes down the length of the embryo. [4] These transcription factors then regulate the expression of segment polarity genes, which define the polarity of each segment. Boundaries and identities of each segment are later defined. [4]

Within the arthropods, the body wall, nervous system, kidneys, muscles and body cavity are segmented, as are the appendages (when they are present). Some of these elements (e.g. musculature) are not segmented in their sister taxon, the onychophora. [1]

Annelids: Leech

While not as well studied as in Drosophila and zebrafish, segmentation in the leech has been described as “budding” segmentation. Early divisions within the leech embryo result in teloblast cells, which are stem cells that divide asymmetrically to create bandlets of blast cells. [2] Furthermore, there are five different teloblast lineages (N, M, O, P, and Q), with one set for each side of the midline. The N and Q lineages contribute two blast cells for each segment, while the M, O, and P lineages only contribute one cell per segment. [5] Finally, the number of segments within the embryo is defined by the number of divisions and blast cells. [2] Segmentation appears to be regulated by the gene Hedgehog, suggesting its common evolutionary origin in the ancestor of arthropods and annelids. [6]

Within the annelids, as with the arthropods, the body wall, nervous system, kidneys, muscles and body cavity are generally segmented. However, this is not true for all of the traits all of the time: many lack segmentation in the body wall, coelom and musculature. [1]

Chordates: zebrafish and mouse

Zebrafish form segments known as somites through a process that is reliant upon gradients of retinoic acid and FGF, as well as periodic oscillation of gene expression. Zebrafish Somitogenesis.png
Zebrafish form segments known as somites through a process that is reliant upon gradients of retinoic acid and FGF, as well as periodic oscillation of gene expression.

Although perhaps not as well studied as Drosophila , segmentation in zebrafish, chicks, and mice is actively studied. Segmentation in chordates is characterized as the formation of a pair of somites on either side of the midline. This is often referred to as somitogenesis.

In chordates, segmentation is coordinated by the clock and wavefront model. The "clock" refers to the periodic oscillation of specific genes, such as Her1, a hairy/Enhancer of split- gene. Expression starts at the posterior end of the embryo and moves towards the anterior. The wavefront is where the somites mature, defined by a gradient of FGF with somites forming at the low end of this gradient. In higher vertebrates including mouse and chick, but not zebrafish, the wavefront also depends upon retinoic acid generated just anterior to the caudal FGF8 domain which limits the anterior spreading of FGF8; retinoic acid repression of Fgf8 gene expression defines the wavefront as the point at which the concentrations of both retinoic acid and diffusible FGF8 protein are at their lowest. Cells at this point will mature and form a pair of somites. [7] [8] Elaboration of this process with other signalling chemicals allows for structures such as muscles to span the basic segments.[ citation needed ] Lower vertebrates such as zebrafish do not require retinoic acid repression of caudal Fgf8 for somitogenesis due to differences in gastrulation and neuromesodermal progenitor function compared to higher vertebrates. [9]

Other taxa

In other taxa, there is some evidence of segmentation in some organs, but this segmentation is not pervasive to the full list of organs mentioned above for arthropods and annelids. One might think of the serially repeated units in many Cycloneuralia, or the segmented body armature of the chitons (which is not accompanied by a segmented coelom). [1]


Segmentation can be seen as originating in two ways. To caricature, the 'amplification' pathway would involve a single-segment ancestral organism becoming segmented by repeating itself. This seems implausible, and the 'parcellization' framework is generally preferred – where existing organization of organ systems is 'formalized' from loosely defined packets into more rigid segments. [1] As such, organisms with a loosely defined metamerism, whether internal (as some molluscs) or external (as onychophora), can be seen as 'precursors' to eusegmented organisms such as annelids or arthropods. [1]

See also

Related Research Articles

Mesoderm Middle germ layer that forms muscle, bone, blood vessels and more

The mesoderm is the middle layer of the three germ layers that develop during gastrulation in the very early development of the embryo of most animals. The outer layer is the ectoderm, and the inner layer is the endoderm.

Neural tube Developmental precursor to the central nervous system

In the developing chordate, the neural tube is the embryonic precursor to the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain and spinal cord. The neural groove gradually deepens as the neural folds become elevated, and ultimately the folds meet and coalesce in the middle line and convert the groove into the closed neural tube. In humans, neural tube closure usually occurs by the fourth week of pregnancy. The ectodermal wall of the tube forms the rudiment of the nervous system. The centre of the tube is the neural canal.

<i>Drosophila</i> embryogenesis Embryogenesis of the fruit fly Drosophila, a popular model system

Drosophila embryogenesis, the process by which Drosophila embryos form, is a favorite model system for genetics and developmental biology. The study of its embryogenesis unlocked the century-long puzzle of how development was controlled, creating the field of evolutionary developmental biology. The small size, short generation time, and large brood size make it ideal for genetic studies. Transparent embryos facilitate developmental studies. Drosophila melanogaster was introduced into the field of genetic experiments by Thomas Hunt Morgan in 1909.

Somite Each of several blocks of mesoderm that flank the neural tube on either side in embryogenesis

The somites are a set of bilaterally paired blocks of paraxial mesoderm that form in the embryonic stage of somitogenesis, along the head-to-tail axis in segmented animals. In vertebrates, somites subdivide into the sclerotomes, myotomes, syndetomes and dermatomes that give rise to the vertebrae of the vertebral column, rib cage and part of the occipital bone; skeletal muscle, cartilage, tendons, and skin.


Somitogenesis is the process by which somites form. Somites are bilaterally paired blocks of paraxial mesoderm that form along the anterior-posterior axis of the developing embryo in segmented animals. In vertebrates, somites give rise to skeletal muscle, cartilage, tendons, endothelium, and dermis.

Embryonic development Process by which the embryo forms and develops

In developmental biology, embryonic development, also known as embryogenesis, is the development of an animal or plant embryo. Embryonic development starts with the fertilization of an egg cell (ovum) by a sperm cell, (spermatozoon). Once fertilized, the ovum becomes a single diploid cell known as a zygote. The zygote undergoes mitotic divisions with no significant growth and cellular differentiation, leading to development of a multicellular embryo after passing through an organizational checkpoint during mid-embryogenesis. In mammals, the term refers chiefly to the early stages of prenatal development, whereas the terms fetus and fetal development describe later stages.

Morphogen Biological substance that guides development by non-uniform distribution

A morphogen is a substance whose non-uniform distribution governs the pattern of tissue development in the process of morphogenesis or pattern formation, one of the core processes of developmental biology, establishing positions of the various specialized cell types within a tissue. More specifically, a morphogen is a signaling molecule that acts directly on cells to produce specific cellular responses depending on its local concentration.

Hox genes, a subset of homeobox genes, are a group of related genes that specify regions of the body plan of an embryo along the head-tail axis of animals. Hox proteins encode and specify the characteristics of 'position', ensuring that the correct structures form in the correct places of the body. For example, Hox genes in insects specify which appendages form on a segment, and Hox genes in vertebrates specify the types and shape of vertebrae that will form. In segmented animals, Hox proteins thus confer segmental or positional identity, but do not form the actual segments themselves.

Retinoic acid Metabolite of vitamin A

Retinoic acid (used simplified here for all-trans-retinoic acid) is a metabolite of vitamin A1 (all-trans-retinol) that mediates the functions of vitamin A1 required for growth and development. All-trans-retinoic acid is required in chordate animals, which includes all higher animals from fish to humans. During early embryonic development, all-trans-retinoic acid generated in a specific region of the embryo helps determine position along the embryonic anterior/posterior axis by serving as an intercellular signaling molecule that guides development of the posterior portion of the embryo. It acts through Hox genes, which ultimately control anterior/posterior patterning in early developmental stages.

Paraxial mesoderm

Paraxial mesoderm, also known as presomitic or somitic mesoderm is the area of mesoderm in the neurulating embryo that flanks and forms simultaneously with the neural tube. The cells of this region give rise to somites, blocks of tissue running along both sides of the neural tube, which form muscle and the tissues of the back, including connective tissue and the dermis.

Gap gene

A gap gene is a type of gene involved in the development of the segmented embryos of some arthropods. Gap genes are defined by the effect of a mutation in that gene, which causes the loss of contiguous body segments, resembling a gap in the normal body plan. Each gap gene, therefore, is necessary for the development of a section of the organism.

Zona limitans intrathalamica

The zona limitans intrathalamica (ZLI) is a lineage-restriction compartment and primary developmental boundary in the vertebrate forebrain that serves as a signaling center and a restrictive border between the thalamus and the prethalamus.

The limb bud is a structure formed early in vertebrate limb development. As a result of interactions between the ectoderm and underlying mesoderm, formation occurs roughly around the fourth week of development. In the development of the human embryo the upper limb bud appears in the third week and the lower limb bud appears four days later.

In the field of developmental biology, regional differentiation is the process by which different areas are identified in the development of the early embryo. The process by which the cells become specified differs between organisms.

engrailed is a homeodomain transcription factor involved in many aspects of multicellular development. First known for its role in arthropod embryological development, working in consort with the Hox genes, engrailed has been found to be important in other areas of development. It has been identified in many bilaterians, including the arthropods, vertebrates, echinoderms, molluscs, nematodes, brachiopods, and polychaetes. It acts as a "selector" gene, conferring a specific identity to defined areas of the body, and co-ordinating the expression of downstream genes.

Zone of polarizing activity

The zone of polarizing activity (ZPA) is an area of mesenchyme that contains signals which instruct the developing limb bud to form along the anterior/posterior axis. Limb bud is undifferentiated mesenchyme enclosed by an ectoderm covering. Eventually, the limb bud develops into bones, tendons, muscles and joints. Limb bud development relies not only on the ZPA, but also many different genes, signals, and a unique region of ectoderm called the apical ectodermal ridge (AER). Research by Saunders and Gasseling in 1948 identified the AER and its subsequent involvement in proximal distal outgrowth. Twenty years later, the same group did transplantation studies in chick limb bud and identified the ZPA. It wasn't until 1993 that Todt and Fallon showed that the AER and ZPA are dependent on each other.

The Cdx gene family, also called caudal genes, are a group of genes found in many animal genomes. Cdx genes contain a homeobox DNA sequence and code for proteins that act as transcription factors. The gene after which the gene family is named is the caudal or cad gene of the fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster. The human genome has three Cdx genes, called CDX1, CDX2 and CDX4. The zebrafish has no cdx2 gene, but two copies of cdx1 and one copy of cdx4. The Cdx gene in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans is called pal-1.

The clock and wavefront model is a model used to describe the process of somitogenesis in vertebrates. Somitogenesis is the process by which somites, blocks of mesoderm that give rise to a variety of connective tissues, are formed.

Segmentation is the physical characteristic by which the human body is divided into repeating subunits called segments arranged along a longitudinal axis. In humans, the segmentation characteristic observed in the nervous system is of biological and evolutionary significance. Segmentation is a crucial developmental process involved in the patterning and segregation of groups of cells with different features, generating regional properties for such cell groups and organizing them both within the tissues as well as along the embryonic axis.

HES7 gene

(HES7) or bHLHb37 is protein coding mammalian gene found on chromosome 17 in humans. HES7 is a member of the Hairy and Enhancer of Split families of Basic helix-loop-helix proteins. The gene product is a transcription factor and is expressed cyclically in the presomitic mesoderm as part of the Notch signalling pathway. HES7 is involved in the segmentation of somites from the presomitic mesoderm in vertebrates. The HES7 gene is self-regulated by a negative feedback loop in which the gene product can bind to its own promoter. This causes the gene to be expressed in an oscillatory manner. The HES7 protein also represses expression of Lunatic Fringe (LFNG) thereby both directly and indirectly regulating the Notch signalling pathway. Mutations in HES7 can result in deformities of the spine, ribs and heart. Spondylocostal dysostosis is a common disease caused by mutations in the HES7 gene. The inheritance pattern of Spondylocostal dysostosis is autosomal recessive.


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