Evolution of the glomerulus in a marine environment and its implications for renal function in terrestrial vertebrates

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Nearly a century ago, Homer Smith proposed that the glomerulus evolved to meet the challenge of excretion of water in freshwater vertebrates. This hypothesis has been repeatedly restated in the nephrology and renal physiology literature, even though we now know that vertebrates evolved and diversified in marine (saltwater) environments. A more likely explanation is that the vertebrate glomerulus evolved from the meta-nephridium of marine invertebrates, with the driving force for ultrafiltration being facilitated by the apposition of the filtration barrier to the vasculature (in vertebrates) rather than the coelom (in invertebrates) and the development of a true heart and the more complex vertebrate vascular system. In turn, glomerular filtration aided individual regulation of divalent ions like magnesium, calcium, and sulfate compatible with the function of cardiac and skeletal muscle required for mobile predators. The metabolic cost, imposed by reabsorption of the small amounts of sodium required to drive secretion of these over-abundant divalent ions, was small. This innovation, developed in a salt-water environment, provided a preadaptation for life in freshwater, in which the glomerulus was co-opted to facilitate water excretion, albeit with the additional metabolic demand imposed by the need to reabsorb the majority of filtered sodium. The evolution of the glomerulus in saltwater also provided preadaptation for terrestrial life, where the imperative is conservation of both water and electrolytes. The historical contingencies of this scenario may explain why the mammalian kidney is so metabolically inefficient, with ∼80% of oxygen consumption being used to drive reabsorption of filtered sodium.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)R143-R151
Number of pages9
JournalAmerican Journal of Physiology - Regulatory Integrative and Comparative Physiology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2023


  • evolution
  • historical contingency
  • kidney
  • vertebrate
  • water and electrolyte homeostasis

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