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Open Access Research article

A general scenario of Hox gene inventory variation among major sarcopterygian lineages

Dan Liang1, Riga Wu1, Jie Geng1, Chaolin Wang2 and Peng Zhang1*

Author Affiliations

1 State Key Laboratory of Biocontrol, Key Laboratory of Gene Engineering of the Ministry of Education, School of Life Sciences, Sun Yat-Sen University, Guangzhou 510275, China

2 Alligator Research Center of Anhui Province, Xuanzhou 242000, Anhui, China

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:25  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-25

Published: 26 January 2011



Hox genes are known to play a key role in shaping the body plan of metazoans. Evolutionary dynamics of these genes is therefore essential in explaining patterns of evolutionary diversity. Among extant sarcopterygians comprising both lobe-finned fishes and tetrapods, our knowledge of the Hox genes and clusters has largely been restricted in several model organisms such as frogs, birds and mammals. Some evolutionary gaps still exist, especially for those groups with derived body morphology or occupying key positions on the tree of life, hindering our understanding of how Hox gene inventory varied along the sarcopterygian lineage.


We determined the Hox gene inventory for six sarcopterygian groups: lungfishes, caecilians, salamanders, snakes, turtles and crocodiles by comprehensive PCR survey and genome walking. Variable Hox genes in each of the six sarcopterygian group representatives, compared to the human Hox gene inventory, were further validated for their presence/absence by PCR survey in a number of related species representing a broad evolutionary coverage of the group. Turtles, crocodiles, birds and placental mammals possess the same 39 Hox genes. HoxD12 is absent in snakes, amphibians and probably lungfishes. HoxB13 is lost in frogs and caecilians. Lobe-finned fishes, amphibians and squamate reptiles possess HoxC3. HoxC1 is only present in caecilians and lobe-finned fishes. Similar to coelacanths, lungfishes also possess HoxA14, which is only found in lobe-finned fishes to date. Our Hox gene variation data favor the lungfish-tetrapod, turtle-archosaur and frog-salamander relationships and imply that the loss of HoxD12 is not directly related to digit reduction.


Our newly determined Hox inventory data provide a more complete scenario for evolutionary dynamics of Hox genes along the sarcopterygian lineage. Limbless, worm-like caecilians and snakes possess similar Hox gene inventories to animals with less derived body morphology, suggesting changes to their body morphology are likely due to other modifications rather than changes to Hox gene numbers. Furthermore, our results provide basis for future sequencing of the entire Hox clusters of these animals.