A conserved cluster of three PRD-class homeobox genes (homeobrain, rx and orthopedia) in the Cnidaria and Protostomia.

Using a combination of in silico queries and phylogenetic analyses, we found that a cluster of three PRD-class homeobox genes (Homeobrain (hbn), Rax (rx) and Orthopedia (otp)) is present in cnidarians, insects and mollusks (a partial cluster comprising hbn and rx is present in the placozoan Trichoplax adhaerens).

We failed to identify this ‘HRO’ cluster in deuterostomes; in fact, the Homeobrain gene appears to be missing from the chordate genomes we examined, although it is present in hemichordates and echinoderms. To illuminate the ancestral organization and function of this ancient cluster, we mapped the constituent genes against the assembled genome of a model cnidarian, the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis, and characterized their spatiotemporal expression using in situ hybridization.

In N. vectensis, these genes reside in a span of 33 kb with the same gene order as previously reported in insects. Comparisons of genomic sequences and expressed sequence tags revealed the presence of alternative transcripts of Nv-otp and two highly unusual protein-coding polymorphisms in the terminal helix of the Nv-rx homeodomain.

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A population genetic survey revealed the Rx polymorphisms to be widespread in natural populations. During larval development, all three genes are expressed in the ectoderm, in non-overlapping territories along the oral-aboral axis, with distinct temporal expression.