The last common ancestor of Bilateria and Cnidaria is believed to be one of the first animals to develop a nervous system over 500 million years ago. Many of the genes involved in the neural function of the advanced nervous system in Bilateria are well conserved in Cnidaria. Thus, the cnidarian Hydra vulgaris is a good model organism for the study of the putative primitive nervous system in its last common ancestor. The diffuse nervous system of Hydra consists of several peptidergic neuron subsets. However, the specific functions of these subsets remain unclear. Using calcium imaging, here we show that the neuron subsets that express neuropeptide, Hym-176, function as motor circuits to evoke longitudinal contraction. We found that all neurons in a subset defined by the Hym-176 gene (Hym-176A) or its paralogs (Hym-176B) expression are excited simultaneously, followed by longitudinal contraction. This indicates not only that these neuron subsets have a motor function but also that a single molecularly defined neuron subset forms a single coactive circuit. This is in contrast with the bilaterian nervous system, where a single molecularly defined neuron subset harbors multiple coactive circuits, showing a mixture of neurons firing with different timings. Furthermore, we found that the two motor circuits, one expressing Hym-176B in the body column and the other expressing Hym-176A in the foot, are coordinately regulated to exert region-specific contraction. Our results demonstrate that one neuron subset is likely to form a monofunctional circuit as a minimum functional unit to build a more complex behavior in Hydra. This simple feature (one subset, one circuit, one function) found in Hydra may represent the simple ancestral condition of neural evolution.
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