Reevaluating Emx gene phylogeny: homopolymeric amino acid tracts as a potential factor obscuring orthology signals in cyclostome genes
We have cloned and analyzed two Emx genes from the lamprey Petromyzon marinus and our findings provide insight into the patterns and developmental consequences of gene duplications during early vertebrate evolution. The Emx gene family presents an excellent case for addressing these issues as gnathostome vertebrates possess two or three Emx paralogs that are highly pleiotropic, functioning in or being expressed during the development of several vertebrate synapomorphies. Lampreys are the most primitive extant vertebrates and characterization of their development and genomic organization is critical for understanding vertebrate origins. We identified two Emx genes from P. marinus and analyzed their phylogeny and their embryological expression relative to other chordate Emx genes. Our phylogenetic analysis shows that the two lamprey Emx genes group independently from the gnathostome Emx1, Emx2, and Emx3 paralogy groups. Our expression analysis shows that the two lamprey Emx genes are expressed in distinct spatial and temporal patterns that together broadly encompass the combined sites of expression of all gnathostome Emx genes. Our data support a model wherein large-scale regulatory evolution of a single Emx gene occurred after the protochordate/vertebrate divergence, but before the vertebrate radiation. Both the lamprey and gnathostome lineages then underwent independent gene duplications followed by extensive paralog subfunctionalization. Emx subfunctionalization in the telencephalon is remarkably convergent and refines our understanding of lamprey forebrain patterning. We also identify lamprey-specific sites of expression that indicate either neofunctionalization in lampreys or sites-specific nonfunctionalization of all gnathostome Emx genes. Overall, we see only very limited correlation between Emx gene duplications and the acquisition of novel expression domains.