Heterotaxy in Caenorhabditis: widespread natural variation in left–right arrangement of the major organs
Bilateran animals have external bilateral symmetry along the dorsoventral (DV) and anteroposterior (AP) axes. Internal left-right asymmetries appear to be consistently aligned along the left-right (LR) axis with respect to the other axes. Left-right development is most apparent in the directional looping of the cardiac tube, the coiling and placement of the intestines, the positioning of internal organs such as liver, gallbladder, pancreas, and stomach. In addition, there are obvious morphological asymmetries in the brains of some vertebrates and functional left-right asymmetries in the activities of the brain, as assessed by psychological testing, MRI, and the analysis of lesions. There are several fundamental questions: What are the origins of the left-right axis, and are they highly conserved across metazoans? Once the left-right axis is established by the initial breaking of bilateral symmetry, what is the genetic pathway that perpetrates left-right development? What are the cellular and tissue mechanics that lead to morphogenesis during, for example, the looping of the cardiac tube, the coiling of the gut, or asymmetric brain development? Finally, do the asymmetric developmental pathways of each organ system take register from the same initial event that establishes the left-right axis, or are there separate mechanisms that orient heart, gut, and brain left-right asymmetry with respect to the DV and AP axes? These questions are beginning to be experimentally addressed, and papers in this issue of Developmental Genetics make contributions to several aspects in the burgeoning field of left-right development. Recent reviews have summarized the emerging genes and pathways in vertebrate left-right development [Wood, 1997; Harvey, 1998; Ramsdell and Yost, 1998]. Here, I give an overview of the contributions in this issue to the fundamental questions in left-right development.