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Open Access Research article

Coordinated spatial and temporal expression of Hox genes during embryogenesis in the acoel Convolutriloba longifissura

Andreas Hejnol12* and Mark Q Martindale1

Author Affiliations

1 Kewalo Marine Laboratory, PBRC, University of Hawaii, 41 Ahui Street, Honolulu, HI 96813, USA

2 Sars International Centre for Marine Molecular Biology, University of Bergen, Thormøhlensgaten 55, 5008 Bergen, Norway

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BMC Biology 2009, 7:65  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-7-65

Published: 1 October 2009

Abstract

Background

Hox genes are critical for patterning the bilaterian anterior-posterior axis. The evolution of their clustered genomic arrangement and ancestral function has been debated since their discovery. As acoels appear to represent the sister group to the remaining Bilateria (Nephrozoa), investigating Hox gene expression will provide an insight into the ancestral features of the Hox genes in metazoan evolution.

Results

We describe the expression of anterior, central and posterior class Hox genes and the ParaHox ortholog Cdx in the acoel Convolutriloba longifissura. Expression of all three Hox genes begins contemporaneously after gastrulation and then resolves into staggered domains along the anterior-posterior axis, suggesting that the spatial coordination of Hox gene expression was present in the bilaterian ancestor. After early surface ectodermal expression, the anterior and central class genes are expressed in small domains of putative neural precursor cells co-expressing ClSoxB1, suggesting an evolutionary early function of Hox genes in patterning parts of the nervous system. In contrast, the expression of the posterior Hox gene is found in all three germ layers in a much broader posterior region of the embryo.

Conclusion

Our results suggest that the ancestral set of Hox genes was involved in the anterior-posterior patterning of the nervous system of the last common bilaterian ancestor and were later co-opted for patterning in diverse tissues in the bilaterian radiation. The lack of temporal colinearity of Hox expression in acoels may be due to a loss of genomic clustering in this clade or, alternatively, temporal colinearity may have arisen in conjunction with the expansion of the Hox cluster in the Nephrozoa.