Infoscience

Journal article

Additional hox clusters in the zebrafish: Divergent expression patterns belie equivalent activities of duplicate hoxB5 genes

The evolution of metazoan body plans has involved changes to the Hox genes, which are involved in patterning the body axis and display striking evolutionary conservation of structure and expression. Invertebrates contain a single Hox cluster whereas tetrapods possess four clusters. The zebrafish has seven unlinked hox clusters, a finding that is difficult to reconcile with the notion that genomic complexity, reflected by Hox cluster number, and morphological complexity are causally linked, as the body plan of the zebrafish is not obviously more complex than that of the mouse or human. Why have the additional hox genes in zebrafish been conserved? To address the role of these additional zebrafish hox genes, we have examined the duplicate hoxB5 genes, hoxB5a, and hoxB5b. Conservation of gene duplicates can occur when one gene acquires a new function (neofunctionalization), or when the ancestral function is divided between the two duplicates (subfunctionalization). hoxB5a and hoxB5b are expressed in distinct domains, and their combined expression domain is strikingly similar to that of single Hoxb5 genes in other species. The biochemical functions encoded by the two genes were studied by overexpression, which resulted in identical developmental defects in the anterior hindbrain and cranial neural crest, suggesting strongly that hoxB5a and hoxB5b have equivalent biochemical properties with respect to early development. From these studies, we conclude that conservation of hoxB5a and hoxB5b is likely the result of division of the ancestral Hoxb5 function between the two genes, without significant changes in biochemical activity. These results suggest a resolution to the conundrum of the extra hox genes and clusters in the zebrafish, since if any of the additional hox genes in the zebrafish are similarly subfunctionalized, they are unlikely to supply novel genetic functions. Thus, the morphological complexity potentially conferred by the majority of additional zebrafish hox clusters may not be substantially greater than that conferred by the four tetrapod clusters.

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