Background: The Hox gene cluster ranks among the greatest of biological discoveries of the past 30 years. Morphogenetic patterning genes are remarkable for the systems they regulate during major ontogenetic events, and for their expressions of molecular, temporal, and spatial colinearity. Recent descriptions of exceptions to these colinearities are suggesting deep phylogenetic signal that can be used to explore origins of entire deuterostome phyla. Among the most enigmatic of these deuterostomes in terms of unique body patterning are the echinoderms. However, there remains no overall synthesis of the correlation between this signal and the variations observable in the presence/absence and expression patterns of Hox genes.
Results: Recent data from Hox cluster analyses shed light on how the bizarre shift from bilateral larvae to radial adults during echinoderm ontogeny can be accomplished by equally radical modifications within the Hox cluster. In order to explore this more fully, a compilation of observations on the genetic patterns among deuterostomes is integrated with the body patterning trajectories seen across the deuterostome clade.
Conclusions: Synthesis of available data helps to explain morphogenesis along the anterior/posterior axis of echinoderms, delineating the origins and fate of that axis during ontogeny. From this, it is easy to distinguish between 'seriality' along echinoderm rays and true A/P axis phenomena such as colinearity within the somatocoels, and the ontogenetic outcomes of the unique translocation and inversion of the anterior Hox class found within the Echinodermata. An up-to-date summary and integration of the disparate lines of research so far produced on the relationship between Hox genes and pattern formation for all deuterostomes allows for development of a phylogeny and scenario for the evolution of deuterostomes in general, and the Echinodermata in particular.
Keywords: A/P axis; Deuterostomia; Development; Echinodermata; Evolution; Hox genes.