Recent thought on genome evolution has focused on the creation of new genes and changes in regulatory mechanisms while ignoring the role of selective gene loss in shaping genomes. Using data from two cnidarians, the jellyfish Clytia and the coral Acropora, we examined the relative significance of new 'taxonomically restricted' genes and selectively retained ancestral genes in enabling the evolution of novel traits. Consistent with its more complex life-cycle, the proportion of novel genes identified in Clytia was higher than that in the 'polyp only' cnidarians Nematostella and Hydra, but each of these cnidarians has retained a proportion of ancestral genes not present in the other two. The ubiquity and near-stochastic nature of gene loss can explain the discord between patterns of gene distribution and taxonomy.
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