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Yue, JX, Kozmikova I, Ono H, Nossa CW, Kozmik Z, Putnam NH, Yu JK, Holland LZ.  2016.  Conserved noncoding elements in the most distant genera of cephalochordates: The Goldilocks principle. Genome Biology and Evolution. 8:2387-2405.   10.1093/gbe/evw158   AbstractWebsite

Cephalochordates, the sister group of vertebrates + tunicates, are evolving particularly slowly. Therefore, genome comparisons between two congeners of Branchiostoma revealed so many conserved noncoding elements (CNEs), that it was not clear how many are functional regulatory elements. To more effectively identify CNEs with potential regulatory functions, we compared noncoding sequences of genomes of the most phylogenetically distant cephalochordate genera, Asymmetron and Branchiostoma, which diverged approximately 120-160 million years ago. We found 113,070 noncoding elements conserved between the two species, amounting to 3.3% of the genome. The genomic distribution, target gene ontology, and enriched motifs of these CNEs all suggest that many of them are probably cis-regulatory elements. More than 90% of previously verified amphioxus regulatory elements were re-captured in this study. A search of the cephalochordate CNEs around 50 developmental genes inseveral vertebrate genomes revealed eight CNEs conserved between cephalochordates and vertebrates, indicating sequence conservation over > 500 million years of divergence. The function of five CNEs was tested in reporter assays in zebrafish, and one was also tested in amphioxus. All five CNEs proved to be tissue-specific enhancers. Taken together, these findings indicate that even though Branchiostoma and Asymmetron are distantly related, as they are evolving slowly, comparisons between them are likely optimal for identifying most of their tissue-specific cis-regulatory elements laying the foundation for functional characterizations and a better understanding of the evolution of developmental regulation in cephalochordates.

Yue, JX, Yu JK, Putnam NH, Holland LZ.  2014.  The transcriptome of an Amphioxus, Asymmetron lucayanum, from the Bahamas: A window into chordate evolution. Genome Biology and Evolution. 6:2681-2696.   10.1093/gbe/evu212   AbstractWebsite

Cephalochordates, the sister group of tunicates plus vertebrates, have been called "living fossils" due to their resemblance to fossil chordates from Cambrian strata. The genome of the cephalochordate Branchiostoma floridae shares remarkable synteny with vertebrates and is free from whole-genome duplication. We performed RNA sequencing from larvae and adults of Asymmetron lucayanum, a cephalochordate distantly related to B. floridae. Comparisons of about 430 orthologous gene groups among both cephalochordates and 10 vertebrates using an echinoderm, a hemichordate, and a mollusk as outgroups showed that cephalochordates are evolving more slowly than the slowest evolving vertebrate known (the elephant shark), with A. lucayanum evolving even more slowly than B. floridae. Against this background of slow evolution, some genes, notably several involved in innate immunity, stand out as evolving relatively quickly. This may be due to the lack of an adaptive immune system and the relatively high levels of bacteria in the inshore waters cephalochordates inhabit. Molecular dating analysis including several time constraints revealed a divergence time of similar to 120 Ma for A. lucayanum and B. floridae. The divisions between cephalochordates and vertebrates, and that between chordates and the hemichordate plus echinoderm clade likely occurred before the Cambrian.