The nematode story: Hox gene loss and rapid evolution.
Aboobaker A., Blaxter M.
The loss in some taxa of conserved developmental control genes that are present in the vast majority of animal lineages is an understudied phenomenon. It is likely that in those lineages in which loss has occurred it may be a strong signal of the mode, tempo and direction of developmental evolution and thus identify ways of generating morphological novelties. Intuitively we might expect these novelties to be particularly those associated with morphological simplifications. One striking example of this has occurred within the nematodes. It appears that over half the ancestral bilaterian Hox cluster has been lost from the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans and its closest related species. Studying the Hox gene complement of nematodes across the phylum has shown that many, if not all these losses occurred within the phylum. Other nematode clades only distantly related to C. elegans have additional Hox genes orthologous to those present in the ancestral bilaterian but absent from the model nematode. In some of these cases rapid sequence evolution of the homeodomain itself obscures orthology assignment until comparison is made with sequences from multiple nematode clades with slower evolving Hox genes. Across the phylum the homeodomains of the Hox genes that are present are evolving very rapidly. In one particular case the genomic arrangement of two homeodomains suggests a mechanism for gene loss. Studying the function in nematodes of the Hox genes absent from C. elegans awaits further research and the establishment of new nematode models. However, what we do know about Hox gene functions suggests that the genetic circuits within which Hox genes act have changed significantly within C. elegans and its close relatives.