Nervous systems are among the most spectacular products of evolution. Their provenance and evolution have been of interest and often the subjects of intense debate since the late nineteenth century. The genomics era has provided researchers with a new set of tools with which to study the early evolution of neurons, and recent progress on the molecular evolution of the first neurons has been both exciting and frustrating. It has become increasingly obvious that genomic data are often insufficient to reconstruct complex phenotypes in deep evolutionary time because too little is known about how gene function evolves over deep time. Therefore, additional functional data across the animal tree are a prerequisite to a fuller understanding of cell evolution. To this end, we review the functional modules of neurons and the evolution of their molecular components, and we introduce the idea of hierarchical molecular evolution.


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