Background: The cell lineage of nematodes is mostly invariant for a given species, but varies between species. One can thus wonder how a cell lineage varies during evolution. We have started a microevolutionary approach within two genera by observing lineage variations of vulval precursor cells in different natural nematode populations of the same and closely related species.
Results: In Caenorhabditis elegans, the P3.p cell lineage is variable within a genetically homogeneous population and polymorphic between wild strains. Irrespective of its division pattern, P3.p is competent to form vulval tissue in different C. elegans strains, whereas it is not competent in C. briggsae. In Oscheius sp. 1, P4.p and P8.p lineages are strongly polymorphic. Within each genus, these intraspecies polymorphisms in cell lineages are amplified between closely related species. In Oscheius sp. 1, the large polymorphisms in P4.p and P8.p lineages allowed us to undertake a genetic analysis of the variation between two pairs of strains. Multiple loci are involved in cell lineage differences, and variation at one locus appears to have a relatively strong effect. In addition to these large lineage variations in cells that do not normally contribute to the vulva, we find minor variations (errors) in vulval lineages, which represent the precision level of the vulval-patterning process and point to a selection pressure for maintenance of a large vulval equivalence group.
Conclusions: Polymorphisms in vulval cell lineage are found within a given nematode species, and could be instrumental in explaining evolutionary variations between closely related species.