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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Domain duplication, divergence, and loss events in vertebrate Msx paralogs reveal phylogenomically informed disease markers

John R Finnerty1, Maureen E Mazza1 and Peter A Jezewski23*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, Boston University, 5 Cummington Street, Boston, MA 02215, USA

2 Department of Oral Medicine, Infection and Immunity, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, Boston, MA, USA

3 Department of Cytokine Biology, The Forsyth Institute, 140 The Fenway, #411, Boston, MA 02115, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:18  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-18

Published: 20 January 2009



Msx originated early in animal evolution and is implicated in human genetic disorders. To reconstruct the functional evolution of Msx and inform the study of human mutations, we analyzed the phylogeny and synteny of 46 metazoan Msx proteins and tracked the duplication, diversification and loss of conserved motifs.


Vertebrate Msx sequences sort into distinct Msx1, Msx2 and Msx3 clades. The sister-group relationship between MSX1 and MSX2 reflects their derivation from the 4p/5q chromosomal paralogon, a derivative of the original "MetaHox" cluster. We demonstrate physical linkage between Msx and other MetaHox genes (Hmx, NK1, Emx) in a cnidarian. Seven conserved domains, including two Groucho repression domains (N- and C-terminal), were present in the ancestral Msx. In cnidarians, the Groucho domains are highly similar. In vertebrate Msx1, the N-terminal Groucho domain is conserved, while the C-terminal domain diverged substantially, implying a novel function. In vertebrate Msx2 and Msx3, the C-terminal domain was lost. MSX1 mutations associated with ectodermal dysplasia or orofacial clefting disorders map to conserved domains in a non-random fashion.


Msx originated from a MetaHox ancestor that also gave rise to Tlx, Demox, NK, and possibly EHGbox, Hox and ParaHox genes. Duplication, divergence or loss of domains played a central role in the functional evolution of Msx. Duplicated domains allow pleiotropically expressed proteins to evolve new functions without disrupting existing interaction networks. Human missense sequence variants reside within evolutionarily conserved domains, likely disrupting protein function. This phylogenomic evaluation of candidate disease markers will inform clinical and functional studies.