Hox cluster has key roles in regulating the patterning of the antero-posterior axis in a metazoan embryo. It consists of the anterior, central and posterior genes; the central genes have been identified only in bilaterians, but not in cnidarians, and are responsible for archiving morphological complexity in bilaterian development. However, their evolutionary history has not been revealed, that is, there has been a "missing link". Here we show the evolutionary history of Hox clusters of 18 bilaterians and 2 cnidarians by using a new method, "motif-based reconstruction", examining the gain/loss processes of evolutionarily conserved sequences, "motifs", outside the homeodomain. We successfully identified the missing link in the evolution of Hox clusters between the cnidarian-bilaterian ancestor and the bilaterians as the ancestor of the central genes, which we call the proto-central gene. Exploring the correspondent gene with the proto-central gene, we found that one of the acoela Hox genes has the same motif repertory as that of the proto-central gene. This interesting finding suggests that the acoela Hox cluster corresponds with the missing link in the evolution of the Hox cluster between the cnidarian-bilaterian ancestor and the bilaterians. Our findings suggested that motif gains/diversifications led to the explosive diversity of the bilaterian body plan.
ASJC Scopus subject areas