Shells and heart: Are human laterality and chirality of snails controlled by the same maternal genes?

Marco Oliverio, Maria Cristina Digilio, Paolo Versacci, Bruno Dallapiccola, Bruno Marino

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The body of most animals display left-right asymmetry of internal organs. Alteration of such asymmetry results in severe congenital defects particularly affecting the cardiovascular system. The earliest known genes involved in asymmetry, the Nodal signalling cascade, are expressed asymmetrically during embryonic development. Nodal was discovered in the mouse, but orthologs (also involved in left-right specification) were reported in ascidians, sea-urchins, and snails. Mutations in Nodal-pathway genes cause alteration of several aspects of chirality, but not entirely mirror phenotypes of the body. Other factors upstream of nodal must be involved in the generation of left-right asymmetry. In snails, breeding experiments have demonstrated that chirality is controlled by a nuclear gene with maternal effect. Given the available evidence, we propose that an evolutionarily conserved genetic basis of chirality (the same that controls left-right asymmetry in snails) is a major synapomorphy of the Bilateria. This hypothesis fits with the observation that: (a) the proportion of patients with heterotaxy and a detected mutation in a gene of the Nodal cascade is actually low, and (b) horizontal recurrence of laterality defects is remarkably more frequent than vertical recurrence, and includes a notable number of affected sibs and/or repeated abortions from unaffected mothers. Identification of the maternal gene(s) involved will allow for the identification of homozygous females at risk of having affected children and spontaneous abortions, and would provide a general medical framework for understanding the genetics of most alterations of chirality.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2419-2425
Number of pages7
JournalAmerican Journal of Medical Genetics, Part A
Volume152 A
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2010


  • Chirality
  • Maternal effect
  • Nodal
  • Situs ambiguus
  • Situs inversus
  • Situs solitus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Genetics(clinical)
  • Genetics
  • Medicine(all)


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