Open Access Research article

The diversity and evolution of chelicerate hemocyanins

Peter Rehm1, Christian Pick1, Janus Borner1, Jürgen Markl2 and Thorsten Burmester1*

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Zoology and Zoological Museum, University of Hamburg, D-20146 Hamburg, Germany

2 Institute of Zoology, Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, D-55099 Mainz, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:19  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-19

Published: 14 February 2012



Oxygen transport in the hemolymph of many arthropod species is facilitated by large copper-proteins referred to as hemocyanins. Arthropod hemocyanins are hexamers or oligomers of hexamers, which are characterized by a high O2 transport capacity and a high cooperativity, thereby enhancing O2 supply. Hemocyanin subunit sequences had been available from horseshoe crabs (Xiphosura) and various spiders (Araneae), but not from any other chelicerate taxon. To trace the evolution of hemocyanins and the emergence of the large hemocyanin oligomers, hemocyanin cDNA sequences were obtained from representatives of selected chelicerate classes.


Hemocyanin subunits from a sea spider, a scorpion, a whip scorpion and a whip spider were sequenced. Hemocyanin has been lost in Opiliones, Pseudoscorpiones, Solifugae and Acari, which may be explained by the evolution of trachea (i.e., taxon Apulmonata). Bayesian phylogenetic analysis was used to reconstruct the evolution of hemocyanin subunits and a relaxed molecular clock approach was applied to date the major events. While the sea spider has a simple hexameric hemocyanin, four distinct subunit types evolved before Xiphosura and Arachnida diverged around 470 Ma ago, suggesting the existence of a 4 × 6mer at that time. Subsequently, independent gene duplication events gave rise to the other distinct subunits in each of the 8 × 6mer hemocyanin of Xiphosura and the 4 × 6mer of Arachnida. The hemocyanin sequences were used to infer the evolutionary history of chelicerates. The phylogenetic trees support a basal position of Pycnogonida, a sister group relationship of Xiphosura and Arachnida, and a sister group relationship of the whip scorpions and the whip spiders.


Formation of a complex hemocyanin oligomer commenced early in the evolution of euchelicerates. A 4 × 6mer hemocyanin consisting of seven subunit types is conserved in most arachnids since more than 400 Ma, although some entelegyne spiders display selective subunit loss and independent oligomerization. Hemocyanins also turned out to be a good marker to trace chelicerate evolution, which is, however, limited by the loss of hemocyanin in some taxa. The molecular clock calculations were in excellent agreement with the fossil record, also demonstrating the applicability of hemocyanins for such approach.