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Open Access Research article

Evolutionary origin and genomic organisation of runt-domain containing genes in arthropods

Elizabeth J Duncan1, Megan J Wilson1, James M Smith1 and Peter K Dearden12*

Author Affiliations

1 Laboratory for Evolution and Development, Department of Biochemistry, University of Otago, Aotearoa-New Zealand

2 National Research Centre for Growth and Development, Department of Biochemistry, University of Otago, PO Box 56, Dunedin, Aotearoa-New Zealand

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BMC Genomics 2008, 9:558  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-9-558

Published: 25 November 2008



Gene clusters, such as the Hox gene cluster, are known to have critical roles in development. In eukaryotes gene clusters arise primarily by tandem gene duplication and divergence. Genes within a cluster are often co-regulated, providing selective pressure to maintain the genome organisation, and this co-regulation can result in temporal or spatial co-linearity of gene expression. It has been previously noted that in Drosophila melanogaster, three of the four runt-domain (RD) containing genes are found in a relatively tight cluster on chromosome 1, raising the possibility of a putative functional RD gene cluster in D. melanogaster.


To investigate the possibility of such a gene cluster, orthologues of the Drosophila melanogaster RD genes were identified in several endopterygotan insects, two exopterygotan insects and two non-insect arthropods. In all insect species four RD genes were identified and orthology was assigned to the Drosophila sequences by phylogenetic analyses. Although four RD genes were found in the crustacean D. pulex, orthology could not be assigned to the insect sequences, indicating independent gene duplications from a single ancestor following the split of the hexapod lineage from the crustacean lineage.

In insects, two chromosomal arrangements of these genes was observed; the first a semi-dispersed cluster, such as in Drosophila, where lozenge is separated from the core cluster of three RD genes often by megabases of DNA. The second arrangement was a tight cluster of the four RD genes, such as in Apis mellifera.

This genomic organisation, particularly of the three core RD genes, raises the possibility of shared regulatory elements. In situ hybridisation of embryonic expression of the four RD genes in Drosophila melanogaster and the honeybee A. mellifera shows no evidence for either spatial or temporal co-linearity of expression during embryogenesis.


All fully sequenced insect genomes contain four RD genes and orthology can be assigned to these genes based on similarity to the D. melanogaster protein sequences. Examination of the genomic organisation of these genes provides evidence for a functional RD gene cluster. RD genes from non-insect arthropods are also clustered, however the lack of orthology between these and insect RD genes suggests this cluster is likely to have resulted from a duplication event independent from that which created the insect RD gene cluster. Analysis of embryonic RD gene expression in two endopterygotan insects, A. mellifera and D. melanogaster, did not show evidence for coordinated gene expression, therefore while the functional significance of this gene cluster remains unknown its maintenance during insect evolution implies some functional significance to the cluster.