Colonial tunicates are the only chordate that possess two distinct developmental pathways to produce an adult body: either sexually through embryogenesis or asexually through a stem cell-mediated renewal termed blastogenesis. Using the colonial tunicate Botryllus schlosseri, we combine transcriptomics and microscopy to build an atlas of the molecular and morphological signatures at each developmental stage for both pathways. The general molecular profiles of these processes are largely distinct. However, the relative timing of organogenesis and ordering of tissue-specific gene expression are conserved. By comparing the developmental pathways of B. schlosseri with other chordates, we identify hundreds of putative transcription factors with conserved temporal expression. Our findings demonstrate that convergent morphology need not imply convergent molecular mechanisms but that it showcases the importance that tissue-specific stem cells and transcription factors play in producing the same mature body through different pathways.
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