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Open Access Research article

Evolution and differential expression of a vertebrate vitellogenin gene cluster

Roderick Nigel Finn1*, Jelena Kolarevic12, Heidi Kongshaug3 and Frank Nilsen13

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, University of Bergen, Bergen High Technology Center, Postbox 7803, N-5020, Bergen, Norway

2 Nofima Marine, N-6600 Sunndalsøra, Norway

3 Institute of Marine Research, Post box 1870 Nordnes, N-5817 Bergen, Norway

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:2  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-2

Published: 5 January 2009



The multiplicity or loss of the vitellogenin (vtg) gene family in vertebrates has been argued to have broad implications for the mode of reproduction (placental or non-placental), cleavage pattern (meroblastic or holoblastic) and character of the egg (pelagic or benthic). Earlier proposals for the existence of three forms of vertebrate vtgs present conflicting models for their origin and subsequent duplication.


By integrating phylogenetics of novel vtg transcripts from old and modern teleosts with syntenic analyses of all available genomic variants of non-metatherian vertebrates we identify the gene orthologies between the Sarcopterygii (tetrapod branch) and Actinopterygii (fish branch). We argue that the vertebrate vtg gene cluster originated in proto-chromosome m, but that vtg genes have subsequently duplicated and rearranged following whole genome duplications. Sequencing of a novel fourth vtg transcript in labrid species, and the presence of duplicated paralogs in certain model organisms supports the notion that lineage-specific gene duplications frequently occur in teleosts. The data show that the vtg gene cluster is more conserved between acanthomorph teleosts and tetrapods, than in ostariophysan teleosts such as the zebrafish. The differential expression of the labrid vtg genes are further consistent with the notion that neofunctionalized Aa-type vtgs are important determinants of the pelagic or benthic character of the eggs in acanthomorph teleosts.


The vertebrate vtg gene cluster existed prior to the separation of Sarcopterygii from Actinopterygii >450 million years ago, a period associated with the second round of whole genome duplication. The presence of higher copy numbers in a more highly expressed subcluster is particularly prevalent in teleosts. The differential expression and latent neofunctionalization of vtg genes in acanthomorph teleosts is an adaptive feature associated with oocyte hydration and spawning in the marine environment.