Open Access Research article

Comparative analyses of vertebrate posterior HoxD clusters reveal atypical cluster architecture in the caecilian Typhlonectes natans

An Mannaert1, Chris T Amemiya2 and Franky Bossuyt1*

Author Affiliations

1 Biology Department, ECOL, Amphibian Evolution Lab, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Brussels, Belgium

2 Benaroya Research Institute at Virginia Mason and University of Washington, Seattle, USA

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BMC Genomics 2010, 11:658  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-11-658

Published: 24 November 2010



The posterior genes of the HoxD cluster play a crucial role in the patterning of the tetrapod limb. This region is under the control of a global, long-range enhancer that is present in all vertebrates. Variation in limb types, as is the case in amphibians, can probably not only be attributed to variation in Hox genes, but is likely to be the product of differences in gene regulation. With a collection of vertebrate genome sequences available today, we used a comparative genomics approach to study the posterior HoxD cluster of amphibians. A frog and a caecilian were included in the study to compare coding sequences as well as to determine the gain and loss of putative regulatory sequences.


We sequenced the posterior end of the HoxD cluster of a caecilian and performed comparative analyses of this region using HoxD clusters of other vertebrates. We determined the presence of conserved non-coding sequences and traced gains and losses of these footprints during vertebrate evolution, with particular focus on amphibians. We found that the caecilian HoxD cluster is almost three times larger than its mammalian counterpart. This enlargement is accompanied with the loss of one gene and the accumulation of repeats in that area. A similar phenomenon was observed in the coelacanth, where a different gene was lost and expansion of the area where the gene was lost has occurred. At least one phylogenetic footprint present in all vertebrates was lost in amphibians. This conserved region is a known regulatory element and functions as a boundary element in neural tissue to prevent expression of Hoxd genes.


The posterior part of the HoxD cluster of Typhlonectes natans is among the largest known today. The loss of Hoxd-12 and the expansion of the intergenic region may exert an influence on the limb enhancer, by having to bypass a distance seven times that of regular HoxD clusters. Whether or not there is a correlation with the loss of limbs remains to be investigated. These results, together with data on other vertebrates show that the tetrapod Hox clusters are more variable than previously thought.