Background: The Sox genes are important regulators of animal development belonging to the HMG domain-containing class of transcription factors. Studies in bilaterian models have notably highlighted their pivotal role in controlling progression along cell lineages, various Sox family members being involved at one side or the other of the critical balance between self-renewing stem cells/proliferating progenitors, and cells undergoing differentiation.
Results: We have investigated the expression of 10 Sox genes in the cnidarian Clytia hemisphaerica. Our phylogenetic analyses allocated most of these Clytia genes to previously-identified Sox groups: SoxB (CheSox2, CheSox3, CheSox10, CheSox13, CheSox14), SoxC (CheSox12), SoxE (CheSox1, CheSox5) and SoxF (CheSox11), one gene (CheSox15) remaining unclassified. In the planula larva and in the medusa, the SoxF orthologue was expressed throughout the endoderm. The other genes were expressed either in stem cells/undifferentiated progenitors, or in differentiating (-ed) cells with a neuro-sensory identity (nematocytes or neurons). In addition, most of them were expressed in the female germline, with their maternal transcripts either localised to the animal region of the egg, or homogeneously distributed.
Conclusions: Comparison with other cnidarians, ctenophores and bilaterians suggest ancient evolutionary conservation of some aspects of gene expression/function at the Sox family level: (i) many Sox genes are expressed in stem cells and/or undifferentiated progenitors; (ii) other genes, or the same under different contexts, are associated with neuro-sensory cell differentiation; (iii) Sox genes are commonly expressed in the germline; (iv) SoxF group genes are associated with endodermal derivatives. Strikingly, total lack of correlation between a given Sox orthology group and expression/function in stem cells/progenitors vs. in differentiating cells implies that Sox genes can easily switch from one side to the other of the balance between these fundamental cellular states in the course of evolution.