Ultrastructure of head kidneys in Echiura
Recent molecular analyses consistently resolve the "spoon worms" (Echiura) as a subgroup of the Annelida, but their closest relatives among annelids still remain unclear. Since the adult morphology of echiurans yields limited insight about their ancestry, we focused on characters of their larval anatomy to contribute to this discussion. Electron microscopical studies of the larval protonephridia (so called head kidneys) of the echiuran species Thalassema thalassemum revealed distinct correspondences to character states in serpulid polychaetes although a close relationship of Echiura and Serpulidae is not supported by any phylogenetic analysis. The larval head kidneys of T. thalassemum consist of only two cells, a terminal cell and a duct cell. The terminal cell forms a tuft of six cilia projecting into the lumen of the terminal cell. The cilia are devoid of circumciliary microvilli. A filter structure is formed by two to three layers of elongate microvilli which surround the lumen of the terminal cell in a tubular manner. A thin layer of extracellular matrix (ECM) encloses the outer microvilli of the tubular structure. The tips of the microvilli project into the lumen of the adjacent duct cell but are not directly connected to it. However, mechanic coupling is faciliated by the surrounding ECM and abundant hemidesmosomes. The distal end of the multiciliary duct cell forms the external opening of the nephridium; a specialized nephropore cell is absent. Apart from the multiciliarity of the duct cell, details of the head kidneys in T. thalassemum reveal no support for the current assumption that Echiura is closely related to Capitellida and/or Terebelliformia. Available data for other echiuran species, however, suggest that the head kidneys of T. thalassemum show a derived state within Echiura.