Background: The evolutionary lineage leading to the teleost fish underwent a whole genome duplication termed FSGD or 3R in addition to two prior genome duplications that took place earlier during vertebrate evolution (termed 1R and 2R). Resulting from the FSGD, additional copies of genes are present in fish, compared to tetrapods whose lineage did not experience the 3R genome duplication. Interestingly, we find that ParaHox genes do not differ in number in extant teleost fishes despite their additional genome duplication from the genomic situation in mammals, but they are distributed over twice as many paralogous regions in fish genomes.
Results: We determined the DNA sequence of the entire ParaHox C1 paralogon in the East African cichlid fish Astatotilapia burtoni, and compared it to orthologous regions in other vertebrate genomes as well as to the paralogous vertebrate ParaHox D paralogons. Evolutionary relationships among genes from these four chromosomal regions were studied with several phylogenetic algorithms. We provide evidence that the genes of the ParaHox C paralogous cluster are duplicated in teleosts, just as it had been shown previously for the D paralogon genes. Overall, however, synteny and cluster integrity seems to be less conserved in ParaHox gene clusters than in Hox gene clusters. Comparative analyses of non-coding sequences uncovered conserved, possibly co-regulatory elements, which are likely to contain promoter motives of the genes belonging to the ParaHox paralogons.
Conclusion: There seems to be strong stabilizing selection for gene order as well as gene orientation in the ParaHox C paralogon, since with a few exceptions, only the lengths of the introns and intergenic regions differ between the distantly related species examined. The high degree of evolutionary conservation of this gene cluster's architecture in particular - but possibly clusters of genes more generally - might be linked to the presence of promoter, enhancer or inhibitor motifs that serve to regulate more than just one gene. Therefore, deletions, inversions or relocations of individual genes could destroy the regulation of the clustered genes in this region. The existence of such a regulation network might explain the evolutionary conservation of gene order and orientation over the course of hundreds of millions of years of vertebrate evolution. Another possible explanation for the highly conserved gene order might be the existence of a regulator not located immediately next to its corresponding gene but further away since a relocation or inversion would possibly interrupt this interaction. Different ParaHox clusters were found to have experienced differential gene loss in teleosts. Yet the complete set of these homeobox genes was maintained, albeit distributed over almost twice the number of chromosomes. Selection due to dosage effects and/or stoichiometric disturbance might act more strongly to maintain a modal number of homeobox genes (and possibly transcription factors more generally) per genome, yet permit the accumulation of other (non regulatory) genes associated with these homeobox gene clusters.