Epithelial tissues are a key metazoan cell type, providing a basic structural unit for the construction of diverse animal body plans. Historically, an epithelial grade of organization was considered to be restricted to the Eumetazoa, with the majority of cell layers described for Porifera lacking any of the conserved ultrastructural characteristics of epithelia. Now with the use of genomic information from the demosponge, Amphimedon queenslandica, we identify orthologs of bilaterian genes that determine epithelial cell polarity or encode components of specialized epithelial junctions and extracellular matrix structures. Amphimedon possesses orthologs of most bilaterian epithelial polarity and adherens junction genes but few or no tight junction, septate junction, or basal lamina genes. To place this information in an evolutionary context, we extended these analyses to the completed genomes of various fungi, the choanoflagellate, Monosiga brevicollis, the placozoan, Trichoplax adhaerens, and the cnidarian, Nematostella vectensis. The results indicate that the majority of "epithelial" genes originated in metazoan or eumetazoan lineages, with only two genes, Par-1 and Discs large, antedating the choanoflagellate-metazoan split. We further explored the mechanism of evolution for each of these genes by tracking the origin of constituent domains and domain combinations. In general, domain configurations found in contemporary bilaterians are inferred to have evolved early in metazoan evolution and are identical or similar to those present in representatives of modern cnidarians, placozoans, and demosponges.
© 2010 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.