Early evolution of a homeobox gene: the parahox gene Gsx in the Cnidaria and the Bilateria


*Author for correspondence (e-mail: jrf3@bu.edu)


Summary Homeobox transcription factors are commonly involved in developmental regulation in diverse eukaryotes, including plants, animals, and fungi. The origin of novel homeobox genes is thought to have contributed to many evolutionary innovations in animals. We perform a molecular phylogenetic analysis of cnox2, the best studied homeobox gene from the phylum Cnidaria, a very ancient lineage of animals. Among three competing hypotheses, our analysis decisively favors the hypothesis that cnox2 is orthologous to the gsx gene of Bilateria, thereby establishing the existence of this specific homeobox gene in the eumetazoan stem lineage, some 650–900 million years ago. We assayed the expression of gsx in the planula larva and polyp of the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis using in situ hybridization and reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction. The gsx ortholog of Nematostella, known as anthox2, is expressed at high levels in the posterior planula and the corresponding “head” region of the polyp. It cannot be detected in the anterior planula or the corresponding “foot” region of the polyp. We have attempted to reconstruct the evolution of gsx spatiotemporal expression in cnidarians and bilaterians using a phylogenetic framework. Because of the surprisingly high degree of variability in gsx expression within the Cnidaria, it is currently not possible to infer unambiguously the ancestral cnidarian condition or the ancestral eumetazoan condition for gsx expression.