Background: Recent analysis of immune-related genes within the sea urchin genome revealed a number of large gene families with vertebrate homologues, such as the Toll-like and NOD/NALP-like receptor families and C-type lectins in addition to a rudimentary complement system. Therefore, the immune response of the purple sea urchin appears to be more complex than previously believed. Another component of the sea urchin immune response is an unusual family of mRNAs, known as 185/333, which is strongly upregulated in response to pathogen challenge. The work presented here indicates that this family of transcripts is derived from an unexpectedly diverse gene family.
Results: The 185/333 genes are small (< 2 kb) with only two exons. Their extraordinary diversity was exemplified by 121 unique sequences identified from 171 cloned genes. Sequences from the second exons were aligned optimally by introducing large gaps, which defined blocks of sequence known as elements. Genes were defined by the presence or absence of elements. Phylogenetic analysis defined five intron types which, when combined with the exon element patterns resulted in 31 gene patterns, 14 of which were not described previously. Sequence diversity was present in all elements, and was higher in the intron than the exons. Repeats within the sequence facilitated multiple alignments, of which two were analyzed in detail. Although the two alignments differed in length, number of elements, and number of patterns, both were about equally accurate at describing the 185/333 sequences. The genes were closely linked and flanked by short repeats. The repeats within and between the genes may promote their diversification through gene conversion, recombination, and meiotic mispairing.
Conclusion: The diversity of the 185/333 gene family represents an intriguing addition to what is known about the S. purpuratus immune response, and provides further evidence that invertebrate immune systems are neither simple nor static.