The systematically ‘handed’, or directionally asymmetrical way in which the major viscera are packed within the vertebrate body is known as situs. Other less obvious vertebrate lateralisations concern cognitive neural function, and include the human phenomena of hand-use preference and language-associated cognitive partitioning. An overview, rather than an exhaustive scholarly review, is given of recent advances in molecular understanding of the mechanism that ensures normal development of ‘correct’ situs. While the asymmetry itself and its left/right direction are clearly vertebrate-conserved characters, data available from various embryo types are compared in order to assess the likelihood that the developmental mechanism is evolutionarily conserved in its entirety. A conserved post-gastrular ‘phylotypic’ stage, with left- and right-specific cascades of key, orthologous gene expressions, clearly exists. It now seems probable that earlier steps, in which symmetry-breaking information is reliably transduced to trigger these cascades on the correct sides, are also conserved at depth although it remains unclear exactly how these steps operate. Earlier data indicated that the initiation of symmetry-breaking had been transformed, among the different vertebrate classes, as drastically as has the anatomy of pre-gastrular development itself, but it now seems more likely that this apparent diversity is deceptive.
Ideas concerning the functional advantages to the vertebrate lifestyle of a systematically asymmetrical visceral packing arrangement, while untestable, are accepted because they form a plausible adaptationist ‘just-so’ story. Nevertheless, two contrasting beliefs are possible about the evolutionary origins of situs. Major recent advances in analysis of its developmental mechanism are largely due not to zoologists, comparative anatomists or evolutionary systematists, but to molecular geneticists, and these workers have generally assumed that the asymmetry is an evolutionary novelty imposed on a true bilateral symmetry, at or close to the origin of the vertebrate clade. A major purpose of this review is to advocate an alternative view, on the grounds of comparative anatomy and molecular systematics together with the comparative study of expressions of orthologous genes in different forms. This view is that situs represents a co-optation of a pre-existing, evolutionarily ancient non-bilaterality of the adult form in a vertebrate ancestor. Viewed this way, vertebrate or chordate origins are best understood as the novel imposition of an adaptively bilateral locomotory-skeletal-neural system, around a retained non-symmetrical ‘visceral’ animal.
One component of neuro-anatomical asymmetry, the habenular/parapineal one that originates in the diencephalon, has recently been found (in teleosts) to be initiated from the same ‘phylotypic’ gene cascade that controls situs development. But the function of this particular diencephalic asymmetry is currently unclear. Other left-right partitionings of brain function, including the much more recently evolved, cerebral cortically located one associated with human language and hand-use, may be controlled entirely separately from situs even though their directionality has a particular relation to it in a majority of individuals.
Finally, possible relationships are discussed between the vertebrate directional asymmetries and those that occur sporadically among protostome bilaterian forms. These may have very different evolutionary and molecular bases, such that there may have been constraints, in protostome evolution, upon any exploitation of left and right for complex organismic, and particularly cognitive neural function.