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SUMMARY

Genes encoding Wnt ligands are crucial in body patterning and are highly conserved among metazoans. Given their conservation at the protein-coding level, it is likely that changes in where and when these genes are active are important in generating evolutionary variations. However, we lack detailed knowledge about how their deployment has diverged. Here, we focus on four Wnt subfamilies (Wnt2, Wnt5, Wnt7, and Wnt8) in mammalian and avian species, consisting of a paralogous gene pair in each, believed to have duplicated in the last common ancestor of vertebrates. We use three-dimensional imaging to capture expression patterns in detail and carry out systematic comparisons. We find evidence of greater divergence between these subgroup paralogues than the respective orthologues, consistent with some level of subfunctionalization/neofunctionalization in the common vertebrate ancestor that has been conserved. However, there were exceptions; in the case of chick Wnt2b, individual sites were shared with both mouse Wnt2 and Wnt2b. We also find greater divergence, between paralogues and orthologues, in some subfamilies (Wnt2 and Wnt8) compared to others (Wnt5 and Wnt7) with the more highly similar expression patterns showing more extensive expression in more structures in the embryo. Wnt8 genes were most restricted and most divergent. Major sites of expression for all subfamilies include CNS, limbs, and facial region, and in general there were more similarities in gene deployment in these territories with divergent patterns featuring more in organs such as heart and gut. A detailed comparison of gene expression patterns in the limb showed similarities in overall combined domains across species with notable differences that may relate to lineage-specific morphogenesis.