Background: The Caenorhabditis elegans genome encodes ten proteins that share sequence similarity with the Hedgehog signaling molecule through their C-terminal autoprocessing Hint/Hog domain. These proteins contain novel N-terminal domains, and C. elegans encodes dozens of additional proteins containing only these N-terminal domains. These gene families are called warthog, groundhog, ground-like and quahog, collectively called hedgehog (hh)-related genes. Previously, the expression pattern of seventeen genes was examined, which showed that they are primarily expressed in the ectoderm.
Results: With the completion of the C. elegans genome sequence in November 2002, we reexamined and identified 61 hh-related ORFs. Further, we identified 49 hh-related ORFs in C. briggsae. ORF analysis revealed that 30% of the genes still had errors in their predictions and we improved these predictions here. We performed a comprehensive expression analysis using GFP fusions of the putative intergenic regulatory sequence with one or two transgenic lines for most genes. The hh-related genes are expressed in one or a few of the following tissues: hypodermis, seam cells, excretory duct and pore cells, vulval epithelial cells, rectal epithelial cells, pharyngeal muscle or marginal cells, arcade cells, support cells of sensory organs, and neuronal cells. Using time-lapse recordings, we discovered that some hh-related genes are expressed in a cyclical fashion in phase with molting during larval development. We also generated several translational GFP fusions, but they did not show any subcellular localization. In addition, we also studied the expression patterns of two genes with similarity to Drosophila frizzled, T23D8.1 and F27E11.3A, and the ortholog of the Drosophila gene dally-like, gpn-1, which is a heparan sulfate proteoglycan. The two frizzled homologs are expressed in a few neurons in the head, and gpn-1 is expressed in the pharynx. Finally, we compare the efficacy of our GFP expression effort with EST, OST and SAGE data.
Conclusion: No bona-fide Hh signaling pathway is present in C. elegans. Given that the hh-related gene products have a predicted signal peptide for secretion, it is possible that they constitute components of the extracellular matrix (ECM). They might be associated with the cuticle or be present in soluble form in the body cavity. They might interact with the Patched or the Patched-related proteins in a manner similar to the interaction of Hedgehog with its receptor Patched.