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Open Access Research article

Differential gene expression between functionally specialized polyps of the colonial hydrozoan Hydractinia symbiolongicarpus (Phylum Cnidaria)

Steven M Sanders1*, Mariya Shcheglovitova12 and Paulyn Cartwright1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas 66045, USA

2 Department of Biological Sciences, George Washington University, Washington, DC 20052, USA

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BMC Genomics 2014, 15:406  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-15-406

Published: 28 May 2014



A colony of the hydrozoan Hydractinia symbiolongicarpus comprises genetically identical yet morphologically distinct and functionally specialized polyp types. The main labor divisions are between feeding, reproduction and defense. In H. symbiolongicarpus, the feeding polyp (called a gastrozooid) has elongated tentacles and a mouth, which are absent in the reproductive polyp (gonozooid) and defensive polyp (dactylozooid). Instead, the dactylozooid has an extended body column with an abundance of stinging cells (nematocysts) and the gonozooid bears gonophores on its body column. Morphological differences between polyp types can be attributed to simple changes in their axial patterning during development, and it has long been hypothesized that these specialized polyps arose through evolutionary alterations in oral-aboral patterning of the ancestral gastrozooid.


An assembly of 66,508 transcripts (>200 bp) were generated using short-read Illumina RNA-Seq libraries constructed from feeding, reproductive, and defensive polyps of H. symbiolongicarpus. Using several different annotation methods, approximately 54% of the transcripts were annotated. Differential expression analyses were conducted between these three polyp types to isolate genes that may be involved in functional, histological, and pattering differences between polyp types. Nearly 7 K transcripts were differentially expressed in a polyp-specific manner, including members of the homeodomain, myosin, toxin and BMP gene families. We report the spatial expression of a subset of these polyp-specific transcripts to validate our differential expression analyses.


While potentially originating through simple changes in patterning, polymorphic polyps in Hydractinia are the result of differentially expressed functional, structural, and patterning genes.

The differentially expressed genes identified in our study provide a starting point for future investigations of the developmental patterning and functional differences that are displayed in the different polyp types that confer a division of labor within a colony of H. symbiolongicarpus.

Hydractinia symbiolongicarpus; RNA-Seq; Polymorphism; Differential expression; Transcriptome assembly; Annotation