Nearly all colonial marine invertebrates are capable of allorecognition--the ability to distinguish between self and genetically distinct members of the same species. When two or more colonies grow into contact, they either reject each other and compete for the contested space or fuse and form a single, chimeric colony. The specificity of this response is conferred by genetic systems that restrict fusion to self and close kin. Two selective pressures, intraspecific spatial competition between whole colonies and competition between stem cells for access to the germline in fused chimeras, are thought to drive the evolution of extensive polymorphism at invertebrate allorecognition loci. After decades of study, genes controlling allorecognition have been identified in two model systems, the protochordate Botryllus schlosseri and the cnidarian Hydractinia symbiolongicarpus. In both species, allorecognition specificity is determined by highly polymorphic cell-surface molecules, encoded by the fuhc and fester genes in Botryllus, and by the alr1 and alr2 genes in Hydractinia. Here we review allorecognition phenomena in both systems, summarizing recent molecular advances, comparing and contrasting the life history traits that shape the evolution of these distinct allorecognition systems, and highlighting questions that remain open in the field.
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