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1.  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
2.  The globin gene family of the cephalochordate amphioxus: implications for chordate globin evolution 
The lancelet amphioxus (Cephalochordata) is a close relative of vertebrates and thus may enhance our understanding of vertebrate gene and genome evolution. In this context, the globins are one of the best studied models for gene family evolution. Previous biochemical studies have demonstrated the presence of an intracellular globin in notochord tissue and myotome of amphioxus, but the corresponding gene has not yet been identified. Genomic resources of Branchiostoma floridae now facilitate the identification, experimental confirmation and molecular evolutionary analysis of its globin gene repertoire.
We show that B. floridae harbors at least fifteen paralogous globin genes, all of which reveal evidence of gene expression. The protein sequences of twelve globins display the conserved characteristics of a functional globin fold. In phylogenetic analyses, the amphioxus globin BflGb4 forms a common clade with vertebrate neuroglobins, indicating the presence of this nerve globin in cephalochordates. Orthology is corroborated by conserved syntenic linkage of BflGb4 and flanking genes. The kinetics of ligand binding of recombinantly expressed BflGb4 reveals that this globin is hexacoordinated with a high oxygen association rate, thus strongly resembling vertebrate neuroglobin. In addition, possible amphioxus orthologs of the vertebrate globin X lineage and of the myoglobin/cytoglobin/hemoglobin lineage can be identified, including one gene as a candidate for being expressed in notochord tissue. Genomic analyses identify conserved synteny between amphioxus globin-containing regions and the vertebrate β-globin locus, possibly arguing against a late transpositional origin of the β-globin cluster in vertebrates. Some amphioxus globin gene structures exhibit minisatellite-like tandem duplications of intron-exon boundaries ("mirages"), which may serve to explain the creation of novel intron positions within the globin genes.
The identification of putative orthologs of vertebrate globin variants in the B. floridae genome underlines the importance of cephalochordates for elucidating vertebrate genome evolution. The present study facilitates detailed functional studies of the amphioxus globins in order to trace conserved properties and specific adaptations of respiratory proteins at the base of chordate evolution.
PMCID: PMC3087553  PMID: 21118516
3.  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
4.  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
5.  Genome-wide survey and expression analysis of the bHLH-PAS genes in the amphioxus Branchiostoma floridae reveal both conserved and diverged expression patterns between cephalochordates and vertebrates 
EvoDevo  2014;5:20.
The bHLH-PAS transcription factors are found in both protostomes and deuterostomes. They are involved in many developmental and physiological processes, including regional differentiation of the central nervous system, tube-formation, hypoxia signaling, aromatic hydrocarbon sensing, and circadian rhythm regulation. To understand the evolution of these genes in chordates, we analyzed the bHLH-PAS genes of the basal chordate amphioxus (Branchiostoma floridae).
From the amphioxus draft genome database, we identified ten bHLH-PAS genes, nine of which could be assigned to known orthologous families. The tenth bHLH-PAS gene could not be assigned confidently to any known bHLH family; however, phylogenetic analysis clustered this gene with arthropod Met family genes and two spiralian bHLH-PAS-containing sequences, suggesting that they may share the same ancestry. We examined temporal and spatial expression patterns of these bHLH-PAS genes in developing amphioxus embryos. We found that BfArnt, BfNcoa, BfSim, and BfHifα were expressed in the central nervous system in patterns similar to those of their vertebrate homologs, suggesting that their functions may be conserved. By contrast, the amphioxus BfAhr and BfNpas4 had expression patterns distinct from those in vertebrates. These results imply that there were changes in gene regulation after the divergence of cephalochordates and vertebrates.
We have identified ten bHLH-PAS genes from the amphioxus genome and determined the embryonic expression profiles for these genes. In addition to the nine currently recognized bHLH-PAS families, our survey suggests that the BfbHLHPAS-orphan gene along with arthropod Met genes and the newly identified spiralian bHLH-PAS-containing sequences represent an ancient group of genes that were lost in the vertebrate lineage. In a comparison with the expression patterns of the vertebrate bHLH-PAS paralogs, which are the result of whole-genome duplication, we found that although several members seem to retain conserved expression patterns during chordate evolution, many duplicated paralogs may have undergone subfunctionalization and neofunctionalization in the vertebrate lineage. In addition, our survey of amphioxus bHLH-PAS gene models from genome browser with experimentally verified cDNA sequences calls into question the accuracy of the current in silico gene annotation of the B. floridae genome.
PMCID: PMC4066832  PMID: 24959341
Amphioxus; bHLH-PAS transcription factors; Branchiostoma floridae; Embryonic development; Molecular phylogeny
6.  Evolution of developmental roles of Pax2/5/8 paralogs after independent duplication in urochordate and vertebrate lineages 
BMC Biology  2008;6:35.
Gene duplication provides opportunities for lineage diversification and evolution of developmental novelties. Duplicated genes generally either disappear by accumulation of mutations (nonfunctionalization), or are preserved either by the origin of positively selected functions in one or both duplicates (neofunctionalization), or by the partitioning of original gene subfunctions between the duplicates (subfunctionalization). The Pax2/5/8 family of important developmental regulators has undergone parallel expansion among chordate groups. After the divergence of urochordate and vertebrate lineages, two rounds of independent gene duplications resulted in the Pax2, Pax5, and Pax8 genes of most vertebrates (the sister group of the urochordates), and an additional duplication provided the pax2a and pax2b duplicates in teleost fish. Separate from the vertebrate genome expansions, a duplication also created two Pax2/5/8 genes in the common ancestor of ascidian and larvacean urochordates.
To better understand mechanisms underlying the evolution of duplicated genes, we investigated, in the larvacean urochordate Oikopleura dioica, the embryonic gene expression patterns of Pax2/5/8 paralogs. We compared the larvacean and ascidian expression patterns to infer modular subfunctions present in the single pre-duplication Pax2/5/8 gene of stem urochordates, and we compared vertebrate and urochordate expression to infer the suite of Pax2/5/8 gene subfunctions in the common ancestor of olfactores (vertebrates + urochordates). Expression pattern differences of larvacean and ascidian Pax2/5/8 orthologs in the endostyle, pharynx and hindgut suggest that some ancestral gene functions have been partitioned differently to the duplicates in the two urochordate lineages. Novel expression in the larvacean heart may have resulted from the neofunctionalization of a Pax2/5/8 gene in the urochordates. Expression of larvacean Pax2/5/8 in the endostyle, in sites of epithelial remodeling, and in sensory tissues evokes like functions of Pax2, Pax5 and Pax8 in vertebrate embryos, and may indicate ancient origins for these functions in the chordate common ancestor.
Comparative analysis of expression patterns of chordate Pax2/5/8 duplicates, rooted on the single-copy Pax2/5/8 gene of amphioxus, whose lineage diverged basally among chordates, provides new insights into the evolution and development of the heart, thyroid, pharynx, stomodeum and placodes in chordates; supports the controversial conclusion that the atrial siphon of ascidians and the otic placode in vertebrates are homologous; and backs the notion that Pax2/5/8 functioned in ancestral chordates to engineer epithelial fusions and perforations, including gill slit openings.
PMCID: PMC2532684  PMID: 18721460
7.  Neofunctionalization in Vertebrates: The Example of Retinoic Acid Receptors 
PLoS Genetics  2006;2(7):e102.
Understanding the role of gene duplications in establishing vertebrate innovations is one of the main challenges of Evo-Devo (evolution of development) studies. Data on evolutionary changes in gene expression (i.e., evolution of transcription factor-cis-regulatory elements relationships) tell only part of the story; protein function, best studied by biochemical and functional assays, can also change. In this study, we have investigated how gene duplication has affected both the expression and the ligand-binding specificity of retinoic acid receptors (RARs), which play a major role in chordate embryonic development. Mammals have three paralogous RAR genes—RARα, β, and γ—which resulted from genome duplications at the origin of vertebrates. By using pharmacological ligands selective for specific paralogues, we have studied the ligand-binding capacities of RARs from diverse chordates species. We have found that RARβ-like binding selectivity is a synapomorphy of all chordate RARs, including a reconstructed synthetic RAR representing the receptor present in the ancestor of chordates. Moreover, comparison of expression patterns of the cephalochordate amphioxus and the vertebrates suggests that, of all the RARs, RARβ expression has remained most similar to that of the ancestral RAR. On the basis of these results together, we suggest that while RARβ kept the ancestral RAR role, RARα and RARγ diverged both in ligand-binding capacity and in expression patterns. We thus suggest that neofunctionalization occurred at both the expression and the functional levels to shape RAR roles during development in vertebrates.
In eukaryotic organisms, each gene is a stretch of DNA composed of control regions that bind transcription factors and coding regions that transcribe the mRNA that is later translated into proteins. At the molecular level, changes in control regions can affect the time and place at which a protein is synthesized, whereas changes in the coding region can alter the protein's function. Retinoic acid receptors (RARs) are chordate-specific transcription factors which, upon binding the natural morphogen retinoic acid, bind to and activate transcription from target genes. Here, the authors show how the ligand specificity of RARs has changed during vertebrate evolution in parallel with changes in expression. Through functional characterization of the RARs from several vertebrates, the chordate amphioxus, and the reconstructed ancestral RAR sequence, the authors show that of the three vertebrate RARs, RARβ has retained the ancestral characteristics in terms of both function and expression, while RARα and γ have evolved by acquiring new functions, both new binding specificity and new expression patterns. Thus both types of evolution have been important in the diversification of vertebrate RARs.
PMCID: PMC1500811  PMID: 16839186
8.  Amphioxus (Branchiostoma floridae) has orthologs of vertebrate odorant receptors 
A common feature of chemosensory systems is the involvement of G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) in the detection of environmental stimuli. Several lineages of GPCRs are involved in vertebrate olfaction, including trace amine-associated receptors, type 1 and 2 vomeronasal receptors and odorant receptors (ORs). Gene duplication and gene loss in different vertebrate lineages have lead to an enormous amount of variation in OR gene repertoire among species; some fish have fewer than 100 OR genes, while some mammals possess more than 1000. Fascinating features of the vertebrate olfactory system include allelic exclusion, where each olfactory neuron expresses only a single OR gene, and axonal guidance where neurons expressing the same receptor project axons to common glomerulae. By identifying homologous ORs in vertebrate and in non-vertebrate chordates, we hope to expose ancestral features of the chordate olfactory system that will help us to better understand the evolution of the receptors themselves and of the cellular components of the olfactory system.
We have identified 50 full-length and 11 partial ORs in Branchiostoma floridae. No ORs were identified in Ciona intestinalis. Phylogenetic analysis places the B. floridae OR genes in a monophyletic clade with the vertebrate ORs. The majority of OR genes in amphioxus are intronless and many are also tandemly arrayed in the genome. By exposing conserved amino acid motifs and testing the ability of those motifs to discriminate between ORs and non-OR GPCRs, we identified three OR-specific amino acid motifs common in cephalochordate, fish and mammalian and ORs.
Here, we show that amphioxus has orthologs of vertebrate ORs. This conclusion demonstrates that the receptors, and perhaps other components of vertebrate olfaction, evolved at least 550 million years ago. We have also identified highly conserved amino acid motifs that may be important for maintaining receptor conformation or regulating receptor activity. We anticipate that the identification of vertebrate OR orthologs in amphioxus will lead to an improved understanding of OR gene family evolution, OR gene function, and the mechanisms that control cell-specific expression, axonal guidance, signal transduction and signal integration.
PMCID: PMC2764704  PMID: 19804645
9.  Ion Channel Clustering at the Axon Initial Segment and Node of Ranvier Evolved Sequentially in Early Chordates 
PLoS Genetics  2008;4(12):e1000317.
In many mammalian neurons, dense clusters of ion channels at the axonal initial segment and nodes of Ranvier underlie action potential generation and rapid conduction. Axonal clustering of mammalian voltage-gated sodium and KCNQ (Kv7) potassium channels is based on linkage to the actin–spectrin cytoskeleton, which is mediated by the adaptor protein ankyrin-G. We identified key steps in the evolution of this axonal channel clustering. The anchor motif for sodium channel clustering evolved early in the chordate lineage before the divergence of the wormlike cephalochordate, amphioxus. Axons of the lamprey, a very primitive vertebrate, exhibited some invertebrate features (lack of myelin, use of giant diameter to hasten conduction), but possessed narrow initial segments bearing sodium channel clusters like in more recently evolved vertebrates. The KCNQ potassium channel anchor motif evolved after the divergence of lampreys from other vertebrates, in a common ancestor of shark and humans. Thus, clustering of voltage-gated sodium channels was a pivotal early innovation of the chordates. Sodium channel clusters at the axon initial segment serving the generation of action potentials evolved long before the node of Ranvier. KCNQ channels acquired anchors allowing their integration into pre-existing sodium channel complexes at about the same time that ancient vertebrates acquired myelin, saltatory conduction, and hinged jaws. The early chordate refinements in action potential mechanisms we have elucidated appear essential to the complex neural signaling, active behavior, and evolutionary success of vertebrates.
Author Summary
Because nervous systems generate behavior, innovations that confer new neuronal signaling functions are important potential factors in evolution. In mammals, clustering of ion channels on nerves is essential for electrical impulses used in rapid signaling. This channel clustering is generally absent in insects, worms, and other non-chordates. We traced the evolutionary emergence of mechanisms underlying channel clustering on nerves by analyzing the genomes of primitive chordates and studying the cellular distribution and functional properties of their channels. We found that sodium channel clustering evolved early in the chordate lineage, before the divergence of the earliest wormlike and planktonic groups (lancelets and sea squirts). Nerve fibers of the lamprey, a primitive fish, retained some invertebrate features but possessed dense sodium channel clusters like in more recently evolved vertebrates. A potassium channel clustering system evolved, after the divergence of lampreys, in a common ancestor of shark and humans. We conclude that the clustering of sodium channels on axons was the initial pivotal step in a chordate-specific series of evolutionary innovations, making nerve impulses more rapid and robust. The refinements in action potentials we have elucidated appear essential for the complex neural signaling and active behavior of vertebrates.
PMCID: PMC2597720  PMID: 19112491
10.  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
11.  A dynamic history of gene duplications and losses characterizes the evolution of the SPARC family in eumetazoans 
The vertebrates share the ability to produce a skeleton made of mineralized extracellular matrix. However, our understanding of the molecular changes that accompanied their emergence remains scarce. Here, we describe the evolutionary history of the SPARC (secreted protein acidic and rich in cysteine) family, because its vertebrate orthologues are expressed in cartilage, bones and teeth where they have been proposed to bind calcium and act as extracellular collagen chaperones, and because further duplications of specific SPARC members produced the small calcium-binding phosphoproteins (SCPP) family that is crucial for skeletal mineralization to occur. Both phylogeny and synteny conservation analyses reveal that, in the eumetazoan ancestor, a unique ancestral gene duplicated to give rise to SPARC and SPARCB described here for the first time. Independent losses have eliminated one of the two paralogues in cnidarians, protostomes and tetrapods. Hence, only non-tetrapod deuterostomes have conserved both genes. Remarkably, SPARC and SPARCB paralogues are still linked in the amphioxus genome. To shed light on the evolution of the SPARC family members in chordates, we performed a comprehensive analysis of their embryonic expression patterns in amphioxus, tunicates, teleosts, amphibians and mammals. Our results show that in the chordate lineage SPARC and SPARCB family members were recurrently recruited in a variety of unrelated tissues expressing collagen genes. We propose that one of the earliest steps of skeletal evolution involved the co-expression of SPARC paralogues with collagenous proteins.
PMCID: PMC3619480  PMID: 23446527
SPARC gene family; eumetazoans; ancient duplication; independent losses; vertebrate evolution
12.  Identification and characterization of novel amphioxus microRNAs by Solexa sequencing 
Genome Biology  2009;10(7):R78.
An analysis of amphioxus miRNAs suggests an expansion of miRNAs played a key role in the evolution of chordates to vertebrates
microRNAs (miRNAs) are endogenous small non-coding RNAs that regulate gene expression at the post-transcriptional level. While the number of known human and murine miRNAs is continuously increasing, information regarding miRNAs from other species such as amphioxus remains limited.
We combined Solexa sequencing with computational techniques to identify novel miRNAs in the amphioxus species B. belcheri (Gray). This approach allowed us to identify 113 amphioxus miRNA genes. Among them, 55 were conserved across species and encoded 45 non-redundant mature miRNAs, whereas 58 were amphioxus-specific and encoded 53 mature miRNAs. Validation of our results with microarray and stem-loop quantitative RT-PCR revealed that Solexa sequencing is a powerful tool for miRNA discovery. Analyzing the evolutionary history of amphioxus miRNAs, we found that amphioxus possesses many miRNAs unique to chordates and vertebrates, and these may thus represent key steps in the evolutionary progression from cephalochordates to vertebrates. We also found that amphioxus is more similar to vertebrates than are tunicates with respect to their miRNA phylogenetic histories.
Taken together, our results indicate that Solexa sequencing allows the successful discovery of novel miRNAs from amphioxus with high accuracy and efficiency. More importantly, our study provides an opportunity to decipher how the elaboration of the miRNA repertoire that occurred during chordate evolution contributed to the evolution of the vertebrate body plan.
PMCID: PMC2728532  PMID: 19615057
13.  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
14.  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
15.  An Otx/Nodal Regulatory Signature for Posterior Neural Development in Ascidians 
PLoS Genetics  2014;10(8):e1004548.
In chordates, neural induction is the first step of a complex developmental process through which ectodermal cells acquire a neural identity. In ascidians, FGF-mediated neural induction occurs at the 32-cell stage in two blastomere pairs, precursors respectively of anterior and posterior neural tissue. We combined molecular embryology and cis-regulatory analysis to unveil in the ascidian Ciona intestinalis the remarkably simple proximal genetic network that controls posterior neural fate acquisition downstream of FGF. We report that the combined action of two direct FGF targets, the TGFβ factor Nodal, acting via Smad- and Fox-binding sites, and the transcription factor Otx suffices to trigger ascidian posterior neural tissue formation. Moreover, we found that this strategy is conserved in the distantly related ascidian Phallusia mammillata, in spite of extreme sequence divergence in the cis-regulatory sequences involved. Our results thus highlight that the modes of gene regulatory network evolution differ with the evolutionary scale considered. Within ascidians, developmental regulatory networks are remarkably robust to genome sequence divergence. Between ascidians and vertebrates, major fate determinants, such as Otx and Nodal, can be co-opted into different networks. Comparative developmental studies in ascidians with divergent genomes will thus uncover shared ascidian strategies, and contribute to a better understanding of the diversity of developmental strategies within chordates.
Author Summary
The Chordate phylum groups vertebrates, tunicates (including ascidians) and cephalochordates (amphioxus). These animals share a typical body plan characterized by the presence during embryonic life of a notochord and a dorsal neural tube. Ascidians, however, took a significantly different evolutionary path from other chordates resulting in divergent morphological, embryological and genomic features. Their development is fast and stereotyped with very few cells and ascidian genomes have undergone compaction and extensive rearrangements when compared to vertebrates, but also between ascidian species. This raises the question of whether developmental mechanisms controlling typical chordate structure formation are conserved between ascidians and vertebrates. Here, we have studied the set of ascidian genes which control the formation of the posterior part of the nervous system. We uncovered original usages of the signaling molecule Nodal and the transcription factor Otx. For example, Otx, which is a specific determinant of anterior identity in most metazoans, has been co-opted for the formation of the ascidian posterior nervous system. These two factors define a regulatory signature found in enhancers of posterior neural genes in two genomically divergent ascidian species.
PMCID: PMC4133040  PMID: 25121599
16.  FGFRL1 is a neglected putative actor of the FGF signalling pathway present in all major metazoan phyla 
Fibroblast Growth Factors (FGF) and their receptors are well known for having major implications in cell signalling controlling embryonic development. Recently, a gene coding for a protein closely related to FGFRs (Fibroblast Growth Factor Receptors) called FGFR5 or FGFR-like 1 (FGFRL1), has been described in vertebrates. An orthologous gene was also found in the cephalochordate amphioxus, but no orthologous genes were found by the authors in other non-vertebrate species, even if a FGFRL1 gene was identified in the sea urchin genome, as well as a closely related gene, named nou-darake, in the planarian Dugesia japonica. These intriguing data of a deuterostome-specific gene that might be implicated in FGF signalling prompted us to search for putative FGFRL1 orthologues in the completely sequenced genomes of metazoans.
We found FGFRL1 genes in the cnidarian Nematostella vectensis as well as in many bilaterian species. Our analysis also shows that FGFRL1 orthologous genes are linked in the genome with other members of the FGF signalling pathway from cnidarians to bilaterians (distance < 10 Mb). To better understand the implication of FGFRL1 genes in chordate embryonic development, we have analyzed expression patterns of the amphioxus and the mouse genes by whole mount in situ hybridization. We show that some homologous expression territories can be defined, and we propose that FGFRL1 and FGF8/17/18 were already co-expressed in the pharyngeal endoderm in the ancestor of chordates.
Our work sheds light on the existence of a putative FGF signalling pathway actor present in the ancestor of probably all metazoans, the function of which has received little attention until now.
PMCID: PMC2754479  PMID: 19740411
17.  Genomic organization and gene expression of the multiple globins in Atlantic cod: conservation of globin-flanking genes in chordates infers the origin of the vertebrate globin clusters 
The vertebrate globin genes encoding the α- and β-subunits of the tetrameric hemoglobins are clustered at two unlinked loci. The highly conserved linear order of the genes flanking the hemoglobins provides a strong anchor for inferring common ancestry of the globin clusters. In fish, the number of α-β-linked globin genes varies considerably between different sublineages and seems to be related to prevailing physico-chemical conditions. Draft sequences of the Atlantic cod genome enabled us to determine the genomic organization of the globin repertoire in this marine species that copes with fluctuating environments of the temperate and Arctic regions.
The Atlantic cod genome was shown to contain 14 globin genes, including nine hemoglobin genes organized in two unlinked clusters designated β5-α1-β1-α4 and β3-β4-α2-α3-β2. The diverged cod hemoglobin genes displayed different expression levels in adult fish, and tetrameric hemoglobins with or without a Root effect were predicted. The novel finding of maternally inherited hemoglobin mRNAs is consistent with a potential role played by fish hemoglobins in the non-specific immune response. In silico analysis of the six teleost genomes available showed that the two α-β globin clusters are flanked by paralogs of five duplicated genes, in agreement with the proposed teleost-specific duplication of the ancestral vertebrate globin cluster. Screening the genome of extant urochordate and cephalochordate species for conserved globin-flanking genes revealed linkage of RHBDF1, MPG and ARHGAP17 to globin genes in the tunicate Ciona intestinalis, while these genes together with LCMT are closely positioned in amphioxus (Branchiostoma floridae), but seem to be unlinked to the multiple globin genes identified in this species.
The plasticity of Atlantic cod to variable environmental conditions probably involves the expression of multiple globins with potentially different properties. The interspecific difference in number of fish hemoglobin genes contrasts with the highly conserved synteny of the flanking genes. The proximity of globin-flanking genes in the tunicate and amphioxus genomes resembles the RHBDF1-MPG-α-globin-ARHGAP17-LCMT linked genes in man and chicken. We hypothesize that the fusion of the three chordate linkage groups 3, 15 and 17 more than 800 MYA led to the ancestral vertebrate globin cluster during a geological period of increased atmospheric oxygen content.
PMCID: PMC2975663  PMID: 20961401
18.  Roles of retinoic acid and Tbx1/10 in pharyngeal segmentation: amphioxus and the ancestral chordate condition 
EvoDevo  2014;5(1):36.
Although chordates descend from a segmented ancestor, the evolution of head segmentation has been very controversial for over 150 years. Chordates generally possess a segmented pharynx, but even though anatomical evidence and gene expression analyses suggest homologies between the pharyngeal apparatus of invertebrate chordates, such as the cephalochordate amphioxus, and vertebrates, these homologies remain contested. We, therefore, decided to study the evolution of the chordate head by examining the molecular mechanisms underlying pharyngeal morphogenesis in amphioxus, an animal lacking definitive neural crest.
Focusing on the role of retinoic acid (RA) in post-gastrulation pharyngeal morphogenesis, we found that during gastrulation, RA signaling in the endoderm is required for defining pharyngeal and non-pharyngeal domains and that this process involves active degradation of RA anteriorly in the embryo. Subsequent extension of the pharyngeal territory depends on the creation of a low RA environment and is coupled to body elongation. RA further functions in pharyngeal segmentation in a regulatory network involving the mutual inhibition of RA- and Tbx1/10-dependent signaling.
These results indicate that the involvement of RA signaling and its interactions with Tbx1/10 in head segmentation preceded the evolution of neural crest and were thus likely present in the ancestral chordate. Furthermore, developmental comparisons between different deuterostome models suggest that the genetic mechanisms for pharyngeal segmentation are evolutionary ancient and very likely predate the origin of chordates.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/2041-9139-5-36) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
PMCID: PMC4320481  PMID: 25664163
Cephalochordate; Cyp26 function; evolution of developmental mechanisms; evolution of the vertebrate head; functional knockdown; pharmacological treatments; pharyngeal patterning; retinoic acid signaling; Tbx1/10
19.  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
20.  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
21.  Decelerated genome evolution in modern vertebrates revealed by analysis of multiple lancelet genomes 
Nature Communications  2014;5:5896.
Vertebrates diverged from other chordates ~500 Myr ago and experienced successful innovations and adaptations, but the genomic basis underlying vertebrate origins are not fully understood. Here we suggest, through comparison with multiple lancelet (amphioxus) genomes, that ancient vertebrates experienced high rates of protein evolution, genome rearrangement and domain shuffling and that these rates greatly slowed down after the divergence of jawed and jawless vertebrates. Compared with lancelets, modern vertebrates retain, at least relatively, less protein diversity, fewer nucleotide polymorphisms, domain combinations and conserved non-coding elements (CNE). Modern vertebrates also lost substantial transposable element (TE) diversity, whereas lancelets preserve high TE diversity that includes even the long-sought RAG transposon. Lancelets also exhibit rapid gene turnover, pervasive transcription, fastest exon shuffling in metazoans and substantial TE methylation not observed in other invertebrates. These new lancelet genome sequences provide new insights into the chordate ancestral state and the vertebrate evolution.
The lancelet, or amphioxus, is an extant basal chordate that diverged from other chordate lineages about 550 million years ago. Here the authors sequence and assemble the diploid genome of a male adult of the Chinese lancelet, B. belcheri, and highlight genomic features that may have played an important role in the origin and evolution of vertebrates.
PMCID: PMC4284660  PMID: 25523484
22.  Evolutionary Origin of GnIH and NPFF in Chordates: Insights from Novel Amphioxus RFamide Peptides 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(7):e100962.
Gonadotropin-inhibitory hormone (GnIH) is a newly identified hypothalamic neuropeptide that inhibits pituitary hormone secretion in vertebrates. GnIH has an LPXRFamide (X = L or Q) motif at the C-terminal in representative species of gnathostomes. On the other hand, neuropeptide FF (NPFF), a neuropeptide characterized as a pain-modulatory neuropeptide, in vertebrates has a PQRFamide motif similar to the C-terminal of GnIH, suggesting that GnIH and NPFF have diverged from a common ancestor. Because GnIH and NPFF belong to the RFamide peptide family in vertebrates, protochordate RFamide peptides may provide important insights into the evolutionary origin of GnIH and NPFF. In this study, we identified a novel gene encoding RFamide peptides and two genes of their putative receptors in the amphioxus Branchiostoma japonicum. Molecular phylogenetic analysis and synteny analysis indicated that these genes are closely related to the genes of GnIH and NPFF and their receptors of vertebrates. We further identified mature RFamide peptides and their receptors in protochordates. The identified amphioxus RFamide peptides inhibited forskolin induced cAMP signaling in the COS-7 cells with one of the identified amphioxus RFamide peptide receptors expressed. These results indicate that the identified protochordate RFamide peptide gene is a common ancestral form of GnIH and NPFF genes, suggesting that the origin of GnIH and NPFF may date back to the time of the emergence of early chordates. GnIH gene and NPFF gene may have diverged by whole-genome duplication in the course of vertebrate evolution.
PMCID: PMC4077772  PMID: 24983238
23.  Origins of anteroposterior patterning and Hox gene regulation during chordate evolution. 
All chordates share a basic body plan and many common features of early development. Anteroposterior (AP) regions of the vertebrate neural tube are specified by a combinatorial pattern of Hox gene expression that is conserved in urochordates and cephalochordates. Another primitive feature of Hox gene regulation in all chordates is a sensitivity to retinoic acid during embryogenesis, and recent developmental genetic studies have demonstrated the essential role for retinoid signalling in vertebrates. Two AP regions develop within the chordate neural tube during gastrulation: an anterior 'forebrain-midbrain' region specified by Otx genes and a posterior 'hindbrain-spinal cord' region specified by Hox genes. A third, intermediate region corresponding to the midbrain or midbrain-hindbrain boundary develops at around the same time in vertebrates, and comparative data suggest that this was also present in the chordate ancestor. Within the anterior part of the Hox-expressing domain, however, vertebrates appear to have evolved unique roles for segmentation genes, such as Krox-20, in patterning the hindbrain. Genetic approaches in mammals and zebrafish, coupled with molecular phylogenetic studies in ascidians, amphioxus and lampreys, promise to reveal how the complex mechanisms that specify the vertebrate body plan may have arisen from a relatively simple set of ancestral developmental components.
PMCID: PMC1088539  PMID: 11604126
24.  A SINE in the genome of the cephalochordate amphioxus is an Alu element 
Transposable elements of about 300 bp, termed “short interspersed nucleotide elements or SINEs are common in eukaryotes. However, Alu elements, SINEs containing restriction sites for the AluI enzyme, have been known only from primates. Here I report the first SINE found in the genome of the cephalochordate, amphioxus. It is an Alu element of 375 bp that does not share substantial identity with any genomic sequences in vertebrates. It was identified because it was located in the FoxD regulatory region in a cosmid derived from one individual, but absent from the two FoxD alleles of BACs from a second individual. However, searches of sequences of BACs and genomic traces from this second individual gave an estimate of 50-100 copies in the amphioxus genome. The finding of an Alu element in amphioxus raises the question of whether Alu elements in amphioxus and primates arose by convergent evolution or by inheritance from a common ancestor. Genome-wide analyses of transposable elements in amphioxus and other chordates such as tunicates, agnathans and cartilaginous fishes could well provide the answer.
PMCID: PMC1458429  PMID: 16733535
Branchiostoma; transposon; cis-regulation; SINE; Alu; chordate evolution
25.  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

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