During early animal evolution, the emergence of axially polarized segments was central to the diversification of complex bilaterian body plans. Nevertheless, precisely how and when segment polarity pathways arose remains obscure. Here, we demonstrate the molecular basis for segment polarization in developing larvae of the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis. Utilizing spatial transcriptomics, we first constructed a 3D gene expression atlas of developing larval segments. Capitalizing on accurate in silico predictions, we identified Lbx and Uncx, conserved homeodomain-containing genes that occupy opposing subsegmental domains under the control of both bone morphogenetic protein (BMP) signaling and the Hox-Gbx cascade. Functionally, Lbx mutagenesis eliminated all molecular evidence of segment polarization at the larval stage and caused an aberrant mirror-symmetric pattern of retractor muscles (RMs) in primary polyps. These results demonstrate the molecular basis for segment polarity in a non-bilaterian animal, suggesting that polarized metameric structures were present in the Cnidaria-Bilateria common ancestor over 600 million years ago.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2678-2689.e5
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number13
StatePublished - Jul 10 2023


  • Cnidaria
  • germ-layer evolution
  • Lbx
  • segment polarity
  • spatial transcriptomics
  • Uncx


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