Sessile colonial invertebrates-animals such as sponges, corals, bryozoans, and ascidians-can distinguish between their own tissues and those of conspecifics upon contact . This ability, called allorecognition, mediates spatial competition and can prevent stem cell parasitism by ensuring that colonies only fuse with self or close kin. In every taxon studied to date, allorecognition is controlled by one or more highly polymorphic genes [2-8]. However, in no case is it understood how the proteins encoded by these genes discriminate self from non-self. In the cnidarian Hydractinia symbiolongicarpus, allorecognition is controlled by at least two highly polymorphic allorecognition genes, Alr1 and Alr2 [3, 5, 9-12]. Sequence variation at each gene predicts allorecognition in laboratory strains such that colonies reject if they do not share a common allele at either locus, fuse temporarily if they share an allele at only one locus, or fuse permanently if they share an allele at both genes [5, 9]. Here, we show that the gene products of Alr1 and Alr2 (Alr1 and Alr2) are self-ligands with extraordinary specificity. Using an in vitro cell aggregation assay, we found that Alr1 and Alr2 bind to themselves homophilically across opposing cell membranes. For both proteins, each isoform bound only to itself or to an isoform of nearly identical sequence. These results provide a mechanistic explanation for the exquisite specificity of Hydractinia allorecognition. Our results also indicate that hydroids have evolved a molecular strategy of self-recognition that is unique among characterized allorecognition systems within and outside invertebrates.
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