Coronary arteries are tasked with supplying the heart with oxygenated blood and nutrients. Any blockage or developmental problem in these blood vessels can have severe and sometimes lethal consequences. Due to their importance for health, researchers have extensively studied how coronary arteries form in humans and mice; a more limited range of studies have also looked at their equivalent in zebrafish. However, little is known about these structures develop in animals such as birds, amphibians, or other groups of fish. This makes it difficult to retrace the evolutionary processes that have given rise to the coronary arteries we are familiar with in mammals.
To address this knowledge gap, Mizukami et al. set out to compare blood vessel development around the heart of mammals, birds, amphibians, and fish. To do this, they performed detailed anatomical studies of blood vessel structure at different stages of development in mice as well as quail, frogs and newts, zebrafish and sharks.
In both mice and quail, small arterial subepicardial vessels (or ASVs) emerged early in development around the heart; these subsequently reorganised and remodelled themselves to give rise to the ‘true’ coronary arteries characteristic of the mature heart.
Frogs and newts also developed similar ASV-like structures; however, unlike their mammalian and bird equivalents, these vessels did not reorganise, instead being retained into adulthood. In fish, blood vessel development resembled that of amphibians, suggesting that the coronary artery-like structures seen in some fish are an ‘ancestral’ form of ASVs, rather than the equivalent of the mature coronary arteries in mammals and birds.
This work sheds light on the evolutionary processes shaping essential structures in the heart. In the future, Mizukami et al. hope that this knowledge will help develop a greater range of experimental animal models for studying heart disease and potential treatments.