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The notochord is a flexible, rod-shaped body found in embryos of all chordates. It is composed of cells derived from the mesoblast and defining the primitive axis of the embryo. In lower vertebrates, it persists throughout life as the main axial support of the body, while in higher vertebrates it is replaced by the vertebral column. The notochord is found on the ventral surface of the neural tube.
Its appearance during gestation synchronizes with that of the neural tube. On the ventral aspect of the neural groove an axial thickening of the endoderm takes place. This thickening assumes the appearance of a furrow (the chordal furrow) the margins of which come into contact, and so convert it into a solid rod of cells (the notochord) which is then separated from the endoderm.
In higher vertebrates, it extends throughout the entire length of the future vertebral column, and reaches as far as the anterior end of the midbrain, where it ends in a hook-like extremity in the region of the future dorsum sellæ of the sphenoid bone. Initially it exists between the neural tube and the endoderm of the yolk-sac, but soon becomes separated from them by the mesoderm, which grows medially and surrounds it. From the mesoderm surrounding the neural tube and notochord, the skull, vertebral column, and the membranes of the brain and medulla spinalis are developed.
Research into the notochord has played a key role in understanding the development of the central nervous system. By transplanting and expressing a second notochord near the dorsal neural tube, 180 degrees opposite of the normal notochord location, one can induce the formation of motoneurons in the dorsal tube. Motoneuron formation generally occurs in the ventral neural tube, while the dorsal tube generally forms sensory cells.
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