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1.  A neurochemical map of the developing amphioxus nervous system 
BMC Neuroscience  2012;13:59.
Amphioxus, representing the most basal group of living chordates, is the best available proxy for the last invertebrate ancestor of the chordates. Although the central nervous system (CNS) of amphioxus comprises only about 20,000 neurons (as compared to billions in vertebrates), the developmental genetics and neuroanatomy of amphioxus are strikingly vertebrate-like. In the present study, we mapped the distribution of amphioxus CNS cells producing distinctive neurochemicals. To this end, we cloned genes encoding biosynthetic enzymes and/or transporters of the most common neurotransmitters and assayed their developmental expression in the embryo and early larva.
By single and double in situ hybridization experiments, we identified glutamatergic, GABAergic/glycinergic, serotonergic and cholinergic neurons in developing amphioxus. In addition to characterizing the distribution of excitatory and inhibitory neurons in the developing amphioxus CNS, we observed that cholinergic and GABAergic/glycinergic neurons are segmentally arranged in the hindbrain, whereas serotonergic, glutamatergic and dopaminergic neurons are restricted to specific regions of the cerebral vesicle and the hindbrain. We were further able to identify discrete groups of GABAergic and glutamatergic interneurons and cholinergic motoneurons at the level of the primary motor center (PMC), the major integrative center of sensory and motor stimuli of the amphioxus nerve cord.
In this study, we assessed neuronal differentiation in the developing amphioxus nervous system and compiled the first neurochemical map of the amphioxus CNS. This map is a first step towards a full characterization of the neurotransmitter signature of previously described nerve cell types in the amphioxus CNS, such as motoneurons and interneurons.
PMCID: PMC3484041  PMID: 22676056
Branchiostoma; Cephalochordate; Chordate evolution; Lancelet; Neural patterning; Neurotransmitter
2.  Broken colinearity of the amphioxus Hox cluster 
EvoDevo  2012;3:28.
In most eumetazoans studied so far, Hox genes determine the identity of structures along the main body axis. They are usually linked in genomic clusters and, in the case of the vertebrate embryo, are expressed with spatial and temporal colinearity. Outside vertebrates, temporal colinearity has been reported in the cephalochordate amphioxus (the least derived living relative of the chordate ancestor) but only for anterior and central genes, namely Hox1 to Hox4 and Hox6. However, most of the Hox gene expression patterns in amphioxus have not been reported. To gain global insights into the evolution of Hox clusters in chordates, we investigated a more extended expression profile of amphioxus Hox genes.
Here we report an extended expression profile of the European amphioxus Branchiostoma lanceolatum Hox genes and describe that all Hox genes, except Hox13, are expressed during development. Interestingly, we report the breaking of both spatial and temporal colinearity for at least Hox6 and Hox14, which thus have escaped from the classical Hox code concept. We show a previously unidentified Hox6 expression pattern and a faint expression for posterior Hox genes in structures such as the posterior mesoderm, notochord, and hindgut. Unexpectedly, we found that amphioxus Hox14 had the most divergent expression pattern. This gene is expressed in the anterior cerebral vesicle and pharyngeal endoderm. Amphioxus Hox14 expression represents the first report of Hox gene expression in the most anterior part of the central nervous system. Nevertheless, despite these divergent expression patterns, amphioxus Hox6 and Hox14 seem to be still regulated by retinoic acid.
Escape from colinearity by Hox genes is not unusual in either vertebrates or amphioxus and we suggest that those genes escaping from it are probably associated with the patterning of lineage-specific morphological traits, requiring the loss of those developmental constraints that kept them colinear.
PMCID: PMC3534614  PMID: 23198682
Hox gene regulation; Hox cluster evolution; Amphioxus; Hox colinearity; Retinoic acid
3.  Evolution of arylalkylamine N-acetyltransferase: Emergence and divergence 
The melatonin rhythm-generating enzyme, arylalkylamine N-acetyltransferase (AANAT) is known to have recognizable ancient homologs in bacteria and fungi, but not in other eukaryotes. Analysis of new cDNA and genomic sequences has identified several additional homologs in other groupings. First, an AANAT homolog has been found in the genome of the cephalochordate amphioxus, representing the oldest homolog in chordates. Second, two AANAT homologs have been identified in unicellular green algae. The homologs in amphioxus, unicellular green algae, fungi and bacteria are similarly primitive in that they lack sequences found in vertebrate AANATs that are involved in regulation and that facilitate binding and catalysis. In addition, all these sequences are intronless. These features are consistent with horizontal transfer of the AANAT ancestor from bacteria to green algae, fungi and chordates. Lastly, a third AANAT gene has been found in teleost fish, suggesting that AANAT genes serve multiple functions in addition to melatonin synthesis.
PMCID: PMC1578506  PMID: 16697105
arylalkylamine N-acetyltransferase; AANAT; evolution; melatonin
4.  Metal Dealing at the Origin of the Chordata Phylum: The Metallothionein System and Metal Overload Response in Amphioxus 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(8):e43299.
Non-vertebrate chordates, specifically amphioxus, are considered of the utmost interest for gaining insight into the evolutionary trends, i.e. differentiation and specialization, of gene/protein systems. In this work, MTs (metallothioneins), the most important metal binding proteins, are characterized for the first time in the cephalochordate subphylum at both gene and protein level, together with the main features defining the amphioxus response to cadmium and copper overload. Two MT genes (BfMT1 and BfMT2) have been identified in a contiguous region of the genome, as well as several ARE (antioxidant response element) and MRE (metal response element) located upstream the transcribed region. Their corresponding cDNAs exhibit identical sequence in the two lancelet species (B. floridae and B. lanceolatum), BfMT2 cDNA resulting from an alternative splicing event. BfMT1 is a polyvalent metal binding peptide that coordinates any of the studied metal ions (Zn, Cd or Cu) rendering complexes stable enough to last in physiological environments, which is fully concordant with the constitutive expression of its gene, and therefore, with a metal homeostasis housekeeping role. On the contrary, BfMT2 exhibits a clear ability to coordinate Cd(II) ions, while it is absolutely unable to fold into stable Cu (I) complexes, even as mixed species. This identifies it as an essential detoxification agent, which is consequently only induced in emergency situations. The cephalochordate MTs are not directly related to vertebrate MTs, neither by gene structure, protein similarity nor metal-binding behavior of the encoded peptides. The closest relative is the echinoderm MT, which confirm proposed phylogenetic relationships between these two groups. The current findings support the existence in most organisms of two types of MTs as for their metal binding preferences, devoted to different biological functions: multivalent MTs for housekeeping roles, and specialized MTs that evolve either as Cd-thioneins or Cu-thioneins, according to the ecophysiological needs of each kind of organisms.
PMCID: PMC3419175  PMID: 22905252
5.  Evolution of Retinoid and Steroid Signaling: Vertebrate Diversification from an Amphioxus Perspective 
Genome Biology and Evolution  2011;3:985-1005.
Although the physiological relevance of retinoids and steroids in vertebrates is very well established, the origin and evolution of the genetic machineries implicated in their metabolic pathways is still very poorly understood. We investigated the evolution of these genetic networks by conducting an exhaustive survey of components of the retinoid and steroid pathways in the genome of the invertebrate chordate amphioxus (Branchiostoma floridae). Due to its phylogenetic position at the base of chordates, amphioxus is a very useful model to identify and study chordate versus vertebrate innovations, both on a morphological and a genomic level. We have characterized more than 220 amphioxus genes evolutionarily related to vertebrate components of the retinoid and steroid pathways and found that, globally, amphioxus has orthologs of most of the vertebrate components of these two pathways, with some very important exceptions. For example, we failed to identify a vertebrate-like machinery for retinoid storage, transport, and delivery in amphioxus and were also unable to characterize components of the adrenal steroid pathway in this invertebrate chordate. The absence of these genes from the amphioxus genome suggests that both an elaboration and a refinement of the retinoid and steroid pathways took place at the base of the vertebrate lineage. In stark contrast, we also identified massive amplifications in some amphioxus gene families, most extensively in the short-chain dehydrogenase/reductase superfamily, which, based on phylogenetic and genomic linkage analyses, were likely the result of duplications specific to the amphioxus lineage. In sum, this detailed characterization of genes implicated in retinoid and steroid signaling in amphioxus allows us not only to reconstruct an outline of these pathways in the ancestral chordate but also to discuss functional innovations in retinoid homeostasis and steroid-dependent regulation in both cephalochordate and vertebrate evolution.
PMCID: PMC3184775  PMID: 21856648
Branchiostoma floridae; cephalochordates; gene duplication; metabolic networks; nuclear receptor signaling cascades
6.  Sequencing and Analysis of the Mediterranean Amphioxus (Branchiostoma lanceolatum) Transcriptome 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(5):e36554.
The basally divergent phylogenetic position of amphioxus (Cephalochordata), as well as its conserved morphology, development and genetics, make it the best proxy for the chordate ancestor. Particularly, studies using the amphioxus model help our understanding of vertebrate evolution and development. Thus, interest for the amphioxus model led to the characterization of both the transcriptome and complete genome sequence of the American species, Branchiostoma floridae. However, recent technical improvements allowing induction of spawning in the laboratory during the breeding season on a daily basis with the Mediterranean species Branchiostoma lanceolatum have encouraged European Evo-Devo researchers to adopt this species as a model even though no genomic or transcriptomic data have been available. To fill this need we used the pyrosequencing method to characterize the B. lanceolatum transcriptome and then compared our results with the published transcriptome of B. floridae.
Starting with total RNA from nine different developmental stages of B. lanceolatum, a normalized cDNA library was constructed and sequenced on Roche GS FLX (Titanium mode). Around 1.4 million of reads were produced and assembled into 70,530 contigs (average length of 490 bp). Overall 37% of the assembled sequences were annotated by BlastX and their Gene Ontology terms were determined. These results were then compared to genomic and transcriptomic data of B. floridae to assess similarities and specificities of each species.
We obtained a high-quality amphioxus (B. lanceolatum) reference transcriptome using a high throughput sequencing approach. We found that 83% of the predicted genes in the B. floridae complete genome sequence are also found in the B. lanceolatum transcriptome, while only 41% were found in the B. floridae transcriptome obtained with traditional Sanger based sequencing. Therefore, given the high degree of sequence conservation between different amphioxus species, this set of ESTs may now be used as the reference transcriptome for the Branchiostoma genus.
PMCID: PMC3348903  PMID: 22590565
7.  Ancient homeobox gene loss and the evolution of chordate brain and pharynx development: deductions from amphioxus gene expression 
Homeobox genes encode a large superclass of transcription factors with widespread roles in animal development. Within chordates there are over 100 homeobox genes in the invertebrate cephalochordate amphioxus and over 200 in humans. Set against this general trend of increasing gene number in vertebrate evolution, some ancient homeobox genes that were present in the last common ancestor of chordates have been lost from vertebrates. Here, we describe the embryonic expression of four amphioxus descendants of these genes—AmphiNedxa, AmphiNedxb, AmphiMsxlx and AmphiNKx7. All four genes are expressed with a striking asymmetry about the left–right axis in the pharyngeal region of neurula embryos, mirroring the pronounced asymmetry of amphioxus embryogenesis. AmphiMsxlx and AmphiNKx7 are also transiently expressed in an anterior neural tube region destined to become the cerebral vesicle. These findings suggest significant rewiring of developmental gene regulatory networks occurred during chordate evolution, coincident with homeobox gene loss. We propose that loss of otherwise widely conserved genes is possible when these genes function in a confined role in development that is subsequently lost or significantly modified during evolution. In the case of these homeobox genes, we propose that this has occurred in relation to the evolution of the chordate pharynx and brain.
PMCID: PMC2982225  PMID: 20554554
cephalochordate; homeobox; gene loss; pharynx evolution; brain evolution
8.  Characterization, developmental expression and evolutionary features of the huntingtin gene in the amphioxus Branchiostoma floridae 
Huntington's disease is an inherited neurodegenerative disorder that is caused by the expansion of an N-terminal polyQ stretch in the huntingtin protein. In order to investigate the hypothesis that huntingtin was already involved in development of the nervous system in the last common ancestor of chordates, we isolated and characterised the huntingtin homologue from the amphioxus Branchiostoma floridae. In the present paper the amphioxus general term must be referred to Branchiostoma floridae.
In this report, we show that the exon-intron organization of the amphioxus huntingtin gene is highly conserved with that of other vertebrates species. The AmphiHtt protein has two glutamine residues in the position of the typical vertebrate polyQ tract. Sequence conservation is greater along the entire length of the protein than in a previously identified Ciona huntingtin. The first three N-terminal HEAT repeats are highly conserved in vertebrates and amphioxus, although exon rearrangement has occurred in this region. AmphiHtt expression is detectable by in situ hybridization starting from the early neurula stage, where it is found in cells of the neural plate. At later stages, it is retained in the neural compartment but also it appears in limited and well-defined groups of non-neural cells. At subsequent larval stages, AmphiHtt expression is detected in the neural tube, with the strongest signal being present in the most anterior part.
The cloning of amphioxus huntingtin allows to infer that the polyQ in huntingtin was already present 540 million years ago and provides a further element for the study of huntingtin function and its evolution along the deuterostome branch.
PMCID: PMC2206037  PMID: 18005438
9.  Retinoic acid signaling and the evolution of chordates 
In chordates, which comprise urochordates, cephalochordates and vertebrates, the vitamin A-derived morphogen retinoic acid (RA) has a pivotal role during development. Altering levels of endogenous RA signaling during early embryology leads to severe malformations, mainly due to incorrect positional codes specifying the embryonic anteroposterior body axis. In this review, we present our current understanding of the RA signaling pathway and its roles during chordate development. In particular, we focus on the conserved roles of RA and its downstream mediators, the Hox genes, in conveying positional patterning information to different embryonic tissues, such as the endoderm and the central nervous system. We find that some of the control mechanisms governing RA-mediated patterning are well conserved between vertebrates and invertebrate chordates, such as the cephalochordate amphioxus. In contrast, outside the chordates, evidence for roles of RA signaling is scarce and the evolutionary origin of the RA pathway itself thus remains elusive. In sum, to fully understand the evolutionary history of the RA pathway, future research should focus on identification and study of components of the RA signaling cascade in non-chordate deuterostomes (such as hemichordates and echinoderms) and other invertebrates, such as insects, mollusks and cnidarians.
PMCID: PMC1458431  PMID: 16733532
amphioxus; anteroposterior patterning; Branchiostoma; deuterostomes; Hox; invertebrate-to-vertebrate transition; phylogeny
10.  New perspectives on the evolution of protochordate sensory and locomotory systems, and the origin of brains and heads. 
Cladistic analyses generally place tunicates close to the base of the chordate lineage, consistent with the assumption that the tunicate tail is primitively simple, not secondarily reduced from a segmented trunk. Cephalochordates (i.e. amphioxus) are segmented and resemble vertebrates in having two distinct locomotory modes, slow for distance swimming and fast for escape, that depend on separate sets of motor neurons and muscle cells. The sense organs of both amphioxus and tunicate larvae serve essentially as navigational aids and, despite some uncertainty as to homologies, current molecular and ultrastructural data imply a close relationship between them. There are far fewer signs of modification and reduction in the amphioxus central nervous system (CNS), however, so it is arguably the closer to the ancestral condition. Similarities between amphioxus and tunicate sense organs are then most easily explained if distance swimming evolved before and escape behaviour after the two lineages diverged, leaving tunicates to adopt more passive means of avoiding predation. Neither group has the kind of sense organs or sensory integration centres an organism would need to monitor predators, yet mobile predators with eyes were probably important in the early Palaeozoic. For a predator, improvements in vision and locomotion are mutually reinforcing. Both features probably evolved rapidly and together, in an 'arms race' of eyes, brains and segments that left protochordates behind, and ultimately produced the vertebrate head.
PMCID: PMC1088536  PMID: 11604123
11.  Amphioxus: a peaceful anchovy fillet to illuminate Chordate Evolution (II) 
The genome of the amphioxus is on the horizon. With Linda Holland and Jeremy Gibson-Brown at the forefront, with all the amphioxus community behind, and with the Joint Genome Institute, the amphioxus genome will see the light this year, 2006. Hope that it will reflect the “prototypical” preduplicative genome of vertebrates. It may answer definitively what the human genome did not: Are we vertebrates octaploid? Will it shed light on the novelties that helped non-chordates to be chordates? And more, will amphioxus, with a simpler genome, be developed to a senior “experimental model system”, allowing the testing of molecular functions in a non-duplicated genome background and allowing genetic modification to “recapitulate” evolution? Thanks to an outstanding collaboration between labs, the laboratory culture of amphioxus is underway after years of hard work in the field. 2007 looks promising for amphioxus research.
PMCID: PMC1474146  PMID: 16763667
amphioxus; Evo-Devo; vertebrates; chordates
12.  Novel genes dramatically alter regulatory network topology in amphioxus 
Genome Biology  2008;9(8):R123.
Domain rearrangements in the innate immune network of amphioxus suggests that domain shuffling has shaped the evolution of immune systems.
Regulation in protein networks often utilizes specialized domains that 'join' (or 'connect') the network through specific protein-protein interactions. The innate immune system, which provides a first and, in many species, the only line of defense against microbial and viral pathogens, is regulated in this way. Amphioxus (Branchiostoma floridae), whose genome was recently sequenced, occupies a unique position in the evolution of innate immunity, having diverged within the chordate lineage prior to the emergence of the adaptive immune system in vertebrates.
The repertoire of several families of innate immunity proteins is expanded in amphioxus compared to both vertebrates and protostome invertebrates. Part of this expansion consists of genes encoding proteins with unusual domain architectures, which often contain both upstream receptor and downstream activator domains, suggesting a potential role for direct connections (shortcuts) that bypass usual signal transduction pathways.
Domain rearrangements can potentially alter the topology of protein-protein interaction (and regulatory) networks. The extent of such arrangements in the innate immune network of amphioxus suggests that domain shuffling, which is an important mechanism in the evolution of multidomain proteins, has also shaped the development of immune systems.
PMCID: PMC2575513  PMID: 18680598
13.  Identification and Characterisation of five novel Miniature Inverted-repeat Transposable Elements (MITEs) in amphioxus (Branchiostoma floridae) 
As the sister group to vertebrates, amphioxus is consistently used as a model of genome evolution for understanding the invertebrate/vertebrate transition. The amphioxus genome has not undergone massive duplications like those in the vertebrates or disruptive rearrangements like in the genome of Ciona, a urochordate, making it an ideal evolutionary model. Transposable elements have been linked to many genomic evolutionary changes including increased genome size, modified gene expression, massive gene rearrangements, and possibly intron evolution. Despite their importance in genome evolution, few previous examples of transposable elements have been identified in amphioxus. We report five novel Miniature Inverted-repeat Transposable Elements (MITEs) identified by an analysis of amphioxus DNA sequence, which we have named LanceleTn-1, LanceleTn-2, LanceleTn-3a, LanceleTn-3b and LanceleTn-4. Several of the LanceleTn elements were identified in the amphioxus ParaHox cluster, and we suggest these have had important implications for the evolution of this highly conserved gene cluster. The estimated high copy numbers of these elements implies that MITEs are probably the most abundant type of mobile element in amphioxus, and are thus likely to have been of fundamental importance in shaping the evolution of the amphioxus genome.
PMCID: PMC1458432  PMID: 16733534
Cephalochordate; Miniature Inverted-repeat Transposable Elements (MITEs); Genome evolution; ParaHox
14.  On the Origin and Evolution of Vertebrate Olfactory Receptor Genes: Comparative Genome Analysis Among 23 Chordate Species 
Olfaction is a primitive sense in organisms. Both vertebrates and insects have receptors for detecting odor molecules in the environment, but the evolutionary origins of these genes are different. Among studied vertebrates, mammals have ∼1,000 olfactory receptor (OR) genes, whereas teleost fishes have much smaller (∼100) numbers of OR genes. To investigate the origin and evolution of vertebrate OR genes, I attempted to determine near-complete OR gene repertoires by searching whole-genome sequences of 14 nonmammalian chordates, including cephalochordates (amphioxus), urochordates (ascidian and larvacean), and vertebrates (sea lamprey, elephant shark, five teleost fishes, frog, lizard, and chicken), followed by a large-scale phylogenetic analysis in conjunction with mammalian OR genes identified from nine species. This analysis showed that the amphioxus has >30 vertebrate-type OR genes though it lacks distinctive olfactory organs, whereas all OR genes appear to have been lost in the urochordate lineage. Some groups of genes (θ, κ, and λ) that are phylogenetically nested within vertebrate OR genes showed few gene gains and losses, which is in sharp contrast to the evolutionary pattern of OR genes, suggesting that they are actually non-OR genes. Moreover, the analysis demonstrated a great difference in OR gene repertoires between aquatic and terrestrial vertebrates, reflecting the necessity for the detection of water-soluble and airborne odorants, respectively. However, a minor group (β) of genes that are atypically present in both aquatic and terrestrial vertebrates was also found. These findings should provide a critical foundation for further physiological, behavioral, and evolutionary studies of olfaction in various organisms.
PMCID: PMC2817399  PMID: 20333175
olfactory receptor; multigene family; molecular evolution; chordate; vertebrate; amphioxus
15.  The Amphioxus SoxB Family: Implications for the Evolution of Vertebrate Placodes 
Cranial placodes are regions of thickened ectoderm that give rise to sense organs and ganglia in the vertebrate head. Homologous structures are proposed to exist in urochordates, but have not been found in cephalochordates, suggesting the first chordates lacked placodes. SoxB genes are expressed in discrete subsets of vertebrate placodes. To investigate how placodes arose and diversified in the vertebrate lineage we isolated the complete set of SoxB genes from amphioxus and analyzed their expression in embryos and larvae. We find that while amphioxus possesses a single SoxB2 gene, it has three SoxB1 paralogs. Like vertebrate SoxB1 genes, one of these paralogs is expressed in non-neural ectoderm destined to give rise to sensory cells. When considered in the context of other amphioxus placode marker orthologs, amphioxus SoxB1 expression suggests a diversity of sensory cell types utilizing distinct placode-type gene programs was present in the first chordates. Our data supports a model for placode evolution and diversification whereby the full complement of vertebrate placodes evolved by serial recruitment of distinct sensory cell specification programs to anterior pre-placodal ectoderm.
PMCID: PMC1950271  PMID: 17713598
Evolution; development; chordates; vertebrates; placodes; amphioxus
16.  Surprising complexity of the ancestral apoptosis network 
Genome Biology  2007;8(10):R226.
A comparative genomics approach revealed that the genes for several components of the apoptosis network with single copies in vertebrates have multiple paralogs in cnidarian-bilaterian ancestors, suggesting a complex evolutionary history for this network.
Apoptosis, one of the main types of programmed cell death, is regulated and performed by a complex protein network. Studies in model organisms, mostly in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, identified a relatively simple apoptotic network consisting of only a few proteins. However, analysis of several recently sequenced invertebrate genomes, ranging from the cnidarian sea anemone Nematostella vectensis, representing one of the morphologically simplest metazoans, to the deuterostomes sea urchin and amphioxus, contradicts the current paradigm of a simple ancestral network that expanded in vertebrates.
Here we show that the apoptosome-forming CED-4/Apaf-1 protein, present in single copy in vertebrate, nematode, and insect genomes, had multiple paralogs in the cnidarian-bilaterian ancestor. Different members of this ancestral Apaf-1 family led to the extant proteins in nematodes/insects and in deuterostomes, explaining significant functional differences between proteins that until now were believed to be orthologous. Similarly, the evolution of the Bcl-2 and caspase protein families appears surprisingly complex and apparently included significant gene loss in nematodes and insects and expansions in deuterostomes.
The emerging picture of the evolution of the apoptosis network is one of a succession of lineage-specific expansions and losses, which combined with the limited number of 'apoptotic' protein families, resulted in apparent similarities between networks in different organisms that mask an underlying complex evolutionary history. Similar results are beginning to surface for other regulatory networks, contradicting the intuitive notion that regulatory networks evolved in a linear way, from simple to complex.
PMCID: PMC2246300  PMID: 17958905
17.  The synapsin gene family in basal chordates: evolutionary perspectives in metazoans 
Synapsins are neuronal phosphoproteins involved in several functions correlated with both neurotransmitter release and synaptogenesis. The comprehension of the basal role of the synapsin family is hampered in vertebrates by the existence of multiple synapsin genes. Therefore, studying homologous genes in basal chordates, devoid of genome duplication, could help to achieve a better understanding of the complex functions of these proteins.
In this study we report the cloning and characterization of the Ciona intestinalis and amphioxus Branchiostoma floridae synapsin transcripts and the definition of their gene structure using available C. intestinalis and B. floridae genomic sequences. We demonstrate the occurrence, in both model organisms, of a single member of the synapsin gene family. Full-length synapsin genes were identified in the recently sequenced genomes of phylogenetically diverse metazoans. Comparative genome analysis reveals extensive conservation of the SYN locus in several metazoans. Moreover, developmental expression studies underline that synapsin is a neuronal-specific marker in basal chordates and is expressed in several cell types of PNS and in many, if not all, CNS neurons.
Our study demonstrates that synapsin genes are metazoan genes present in a single copy per genome, except for vertebrates. Moreover, we hypothesize that, during the evolution of synapsin proteins, new domains are added at different stages probably to cope up with the increased complexity in the nervous system organization. Finally, we demonstrate that protochordate synapsin is restricted to the post-mitotic phase of CNS development and thereby is a good marker of postmitotic neurons.
PMCID: PMC2825198  PMID: 20113475
18.  Functional characterization of protein 4.1 homolog in amphioxus: Defining a cryptic spectrin-actin-binding site 
Scientific Reports  2013;3:2873.
Vertebrate 4.1 proteins have a spectrin-actin-binding (SAB) domain, which is lacking in all the invertebrate 4.1 proteins indentified so far, and it was therefore proposed that the SAB domain emerged with the advent of vertebrates during evolution. Here we demonstrated for the first time that amphioxus (an invertebrate chordate) protein 4.1, though lacking a recognizable SAB, was able to bind both spectrin and actin, with a binding capacity comparable to that of human protein 4.1. Detailed structure-activity analyses revealed that the unique domain U2/3 was a newly identified SAB-like domain capable of interacting with spectrin and actin, suggesting the presence of a “cryptic” SAB domain in amphioxus 4.1 protein. We also showed that amphioxus 4.1 protein gene was the common ancestor of vertebrate 4.1 protein genes, from which 4.1R, 4.1N, 4.1G, and 4.1B genes originated. This work will encourage further study on the structure-activity of invertebrate 4.1 protein and its interacting proteins.
PMCID: PMC3791450  PMID: 24096627
19.  Evolutionary genomics of the recently duplicated amphioxus Hairy genes 
Amphioxus Hairy genes have gone through a number of lineage-specific duplications, resulting in eight members, some of which are differentially expressed in the embryo. In order to gain insights into the evolution and function of this gene family we have compared their genomic structure and searched for conserved non-coding sequence elements. We have found that introns have been lost independently from these genes at least twice and after the duplication events. By carrying out phylogenetic footprinting between paralogues expressed in the embryo, we have found a differential distribution of conserved elements that could explain the limited overlap in expression patterns of Hairy genes in the amphioxus embryo. Furthermore, clustering of RBP-Jk binding sites in these conserved elements suggests that amphioxus Hairy genes are downstream targets of the Notch signaling pathway, as occurs in vertebrates. All of this evidence suggests that amphioxus Hairy genes have gone through a process of subfunctionalization shortly after their duplication, representing an extreme and rapid case of the duplication-degeneration-complementation model.
PMCID: PMC1458425  PMID: 16733536
amphioxus; DDC model; Hairy; phylogenetic footprinting; evolution
20.  No more than 14: the end of the amphioxus Hox cluster 
The Hox gene cluster has been a key paradigm for a generation of developmental and evolutionary biologists. Since its discovery in the mid-1980's, the identification, genomic organization, expression, colinearity, and regulation of Hox genes have been immediate targets for study in any new model organism, and metazoan genome projects always refer to the structure of the particular Hox cluster(s). Since the early 1990's, it has been dogma that vertebrate Hox clusters are composed of thirteen paralogous groups. Nonetheless, we showed that in the otherwise prototypical cephalochordate amphioxus (Branchiostoma floridae), the Hox cluster contains a fourteenth Hox gene, and very recently, a 14th Hox paralogous group has been found in the coelacanth and the horn shark, suggesting that the amphioxus cluster was anticipating the finding of Hox 14 in some vertebrate lineages. In view of the pivotal place that amphioxus occupies in vertebrate evolution, we thought it of considerable interest to establish the limits of its Hox gene cluster, namely resolution of whether more Hox genes are present in the amphioxus cluster (e.g., Hox 15). Using two strategies, here we report the completion and characterization of the Hox gene content of the single amphioxus Hox cluster, which encompasses 650 kb from Hox1 to Evx. Our data have important implications for the primordial Hox gene cluster of chordates: the prototypical nature of the single amphioxus Hox cluster makes it unlikely that additional paralogous groups will be found in any chordate lineage. We suggest that 14 is the end.
PMCID: PMC1140354  PMID: 15951846
gene clusters; Evx; gene duplication; vertebrate evolution
21.  Evolutionary changes in the notochord genetic toolkit: a comparative analysis of notochord genes in the ascidian Ciona and the larvacean Oikopleura 
The notochord is a defining feature of the chordate clade, and invertebrate chordates, such as tunicates, are uniquely suited for studies of this structure. Here we used a well-characterized set of 50 notochord genes known to be targets of the notochord-specific Brachyury transcription factor in one tunicate, Ciona intestinalis (Class Ascidiacea), to begin determining whether the same genetic toolkit is employed to build the notochord in another tunicate, Oikopleura dioica (Class Larvacea). We identified Oikopleura orthologs of the Ciona notochord genes, as well as lineage-specific duplicates for which we determined the phylogenetic relationships with related genes from other chordates, and we analyzed their expression patterns in Oikopleura embryos.
Of the 50 Ciona notochord genes that were used as a reference, only 26 had clearly identifiable orthologs in Oikopleura. Two of these conserved genes appeared to have undergone Oikopleura- and/or tunicate-specific duplications, and one was present in three copies in Oikopleura, thus bringing the number of genes to test to 30. We were able to clone and test 28 of these genes. Thirteen of the 28 Oikopleura orthologs of Ciona notochord genes showed clear expression in all or in part of the Oikopleura notochord, seven were diffusely expressed throughout the tail, six were expressed in tissues other than the notochord, while two probes did not provide a detectable signal at any of the stages analyzed. One of the notochord genes identified, Oikopleura netrin, was found to be unevenly expressed in notochord cells, in a pattern reminiscent of that previously observed for one of the Oikopleura Hox genes.
A surprisingly high number of Ciona notochord genes do not have apparent counterparts in Oikopleura, and only a fraction of the evolutionarily conserved genes show clear notochord expression. This suggests that Ciona and Oikopleura, despite the morphological similarities of their notochords, have developed rather divergent sets of notochord genes after their split from a common tunicate ancestor. This study demonstrates that comparisons between divergent tunicates can lead to insights into the basic complement of genes sufficient for notochord development, and elucidate the constraints that control its composition.
PMCID: PMC3034685  PMID: 21251251
22.  Whole-Genome Duplications Spurred the Functional Diversification of the Globin Gene Superfamily in Vertebrates 
Molecular Biology and Evolution  2011;29(1):303-312.
It has been hypothesized that two successive rounds of whole-genome duplication (WGD) in the stem lineage of vertebrates provided genetic raw materials for the evolutionary innovation of many vertebrate-specific features. However, it has seldom been possible to trace such innovations to specific functional differences between paralogous gene products that derive from a WGD event. Here, we report genomic evidence for a direct link between WGD and key physiological innovations in the vertebrate oxygen transport system. Specifically, we demonstrate that key globin proteins that evolved specialized functions in different aspects of oxidative metabolism (hemoglobin, myoglobin, and cytoglobin) represent paralogous products of two WGD events in the vertebrate common ancestor. Analysis of conserved macrosynteny between the genomes of vertebrates and amphioxus (subphylum Cephalochordata) revealed that homologous chromosomal segments defined by myoglobin + globin-E, cytoglobin, and the α-globin gene cluster each descend from the same linkage group in the reconstructed proto-karyotype of the chordate common ancestor. The physiological division of labor between the oxygen transport function of hemoglobin and the oxygen storage function of myoglobin played a pivotal role in the evolution of aerobic energy metabolism, supporting the hypothesis that WGDs helped fuel key innovations in vertebrate evolution.
PMCID: PMC3245541  PMID: 21965344
cytoglobin; genome duplication; globin gene family; hemoglobin; myoglobin
23.  The amphioxus genome provides unique insight into the evolution of immunity 
Briefings in Functional Genomics  2012;11(2):167-176.
Immune systems evolve as essential strategies to maintain homeostasis with the environment, prevent microbial assault and recycle damaged host tissues. The immune system is composed of two components, innate and adaptive immunity. The former is common to all animals while the latter consists of a vertebrate-specific system that relies on somatically derived lymphocytes and is associated with near limitless genetic diversity as well as long-term memory. Deuterostome invertebrates provide a view of immune repertoires in phyla that immediately predate the origins of vertebrates. Genomic studies in amphioxus, a cephalochordate, have revealed homologs of genes encoding most innate immune receptors found in vertebrates; however, many of the gene families have undergone dramatic expansions, greatly increasing the innate immune repertoire. In addition, domain-swapping accounts for the innovation of new predicted pathways of receptor function. In both amphioxus and Ciona, a urochordate, the VCBPs (variable region containing chitin-binding proteins), which consist of immunoglobulin V (variable) and chitin binding domains, mediate recognition through the V domains. The V domains of VCBPs in amphioxus exhibit high levels of allelic complexity that presumably relate to functional specificity. Various features of the amphioxus immune repertoire reflect novel selective pressures, which likely have resulted in innovative strategies. Functional genomic studies underscore the value of amphioxus as a model for studying innate immunity and may help reveal how unique relationships between innate immune receptors and both pathogens and symbionts factored in the evolution of adaptive immune systems.
PMCID: PMC3310213  PMID: 22402506
innate immunity; Toll-like receptors; expanded immune repertoire; allelic complexity; gut immunity
24.  Getting closer to a pre-vertebrate genome: the non-LTR retrotransposons of Branchiostoma floridae 
Non-LTR retrotransposons are common in vertebrate genomes and although present in invertebrates they appear at a much lower frequency. The cephalochordate amphioxus is the closest living relative to vertebrates and has been considered a good model for comparative analyses of genome expansions during vertebrate evolution. With the aim to assess the involvement of transposable elements in these events, we have analysed the non-LTR retrotransposons of Branchiostoma floridae. In silico searches have allowed to reconstruct non-LTR elements of six different clades (CR1, I, L1, L2, NeSL and RTE) and assess their structural features. According to the estimated copy number of these elements they account for less than 1% of the haploid genome, which reminds of the low abundance also encountered in the urochordate Ciona intestinalis. Amphioxus (B. floridae) and Ciona share a pre-vertebrate-like organization for the non-LTR retrotransposons (<150 copies, < 1% of the genome) versus the complexity associated to higher vertebrates (Homo sapiens >1.3·106 copies, > 20% of the genome).
PMCID: PMC1458424  PMID: 16733533
transposable elements; non-LTR retrotransposons; cephalochordates; genome evolution.
25.  Comparative genomics of vertebrate Fox cluster loci 
BMC Genomics  2006;7:271.
Vertebrate genomes contain numerous duplicate genes, many of which are organised into paralagous regions indicating duplication of linked groups of genes. Comparison of genomic organisation in different lineages can often allow the evolutionary history of such regions to be traced. A classic example of this is the Hox genes, where the presence of a single continuous Hox cluster in amphioxus and four vertebrate clusters has allowed the genomic evolution of this region to be established. Fox transcription factors of the C, F, L1 and Q1 classes are also organised in clusters in both amphioxus and humans. However in contrast to the Hox genes, only two clusters of paralogous Fox genes have so far been identified in the Human genome and the organisation in other vertebrates is unknown.
To uncover the evolutionary history of the Fox clusters, we report on the comparative genomics of these loci. We demonstrate two further paralogous regions in the Human genome, and identify orthologous regions in mammalian, chicken, frog and teleost genomes, timing the duplications to before the separation of the actinopterygian and sarcopterygian lineages. An additional Fox class, FoxS, was also found to reside in this duplicated genomic region.
Comparison of loci identifies the pattern of gene duplication, loss and cluster break up through multiple lineages, and suggests FoxS1 is a likely remnant of Fox cluster duplication.
PMCID: PMC1634998  PMID: 17062144

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