Editor’s summary: The germ-layer theory — which holds that all the cells and tissues of the body can be grouped into three fundamental layers — goes back to the roots of developmental biology as a discipline 150 years ago. The skin and many external organs are formed of ectoderm; the guts of endoderm, and organs in the middle, such as muscles and bones, form the mesoderm. The mesoderm seems to have been the last of the three layers to have evolved, as Itai Yanai and colleagues confirm with studies on the expression of genes in the embryo of the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans. But which came first, the ectoderm or the endoderm? Further studies on a range of animals, including the spongeAmphimedon queenslandica, which lacks clear germ layers, show that the endoderm expresses evolutionarily older genes than the ectoderm. The authors speculate that the most primitive animals consisted of what would later become endoderm, with the ectoderm differentiating as cells were freed from the primary function of feeding.
Here’s a ten-minute summary of the paper: