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Abstract

Ligand-activated receptors are well-known targets of environmental chemicals that disrupt endocrine signaling. Genomic approaches are providing new opportunities to understand the comparative biology and molecular evolution of these receptors. One example of this is the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR), a basic-helix–loop–helix (bHLH)-Per–Arnt–Sim (PAS) transcription factor through which planar aromatic hydrocarbons cause altered gene expression and toxicity. In contrast to humans and other mammals, which possess a single AHR, teleosts such as the Atlantic killifish (Fundulus heteroclitus) have at least two AHRs (AHR1 and AHR2). Analysis of sequenced genomes has revealed additional, unexpected AHR diversity in non-mammalian vertebrates, including the chicken Gallus gallus (three predicted AHR genes), bony fishes such as the pufferfish Takifugu (formerly Fugu) rubripes (five AHR genes) and zebrafish Danio rerio (three AHR genes), and cartilaginous fishes such as the spiny dogfish Squalus acanthias (three AHR genes). In contrast, invertebrates appear to possess single AHRs that do not bind typical ligands of vertebrate AHRs. We suggest that AHR diversity in vertebrates arose through both gene and whole-genome duplications combined with lineage-specific gene loss, and that sensitivity to the developmental toxicity of planar aromatic hydrocarbons may have had its origin in the evolution of the ligand-binding capacity of the AHR in the chordate lineage. Comparative molecular and genomic studies are providing new insights into AHR diversity and function in non-mammalian species, revealing additional complexity in mechanisms by which environmental chemicals interfere with receptor-dependent signaling. J. Exp. Zool. 305A:693–706, 2006. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.