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The life cycle of scyphozoan cnidarians alternates between sessile asexual polyps and pelagic medusa. Transition from one life form to another is triggered by environmental signals, but the molecular cascades involved in the drastic morphological and physiological changes remain unknown.
We show in the moon jelly Aurelia aurita that the molecular machinery controlling transition of the sessile polyp into a free-swimming jellyfish consists of two parts. One is conserved and relies on retinoic acid signaling. The second, novel part is based on secreted proteins that are strongly upregulated prior to metamorphosis in response to the seasonal temperature changes. One of these proteins functions as a temperature-sensitive "timer" and encodes the precursor of the strobilation hormone of Aurelia.
Our findings uncover the molecule framework controlling the polyp-to-jellyfish transition in a basal metazoan and provide insights into the evolution of complex life cycles in the animal kingdom.