Stem cells are pivotal for development and tissue homeostasis of multicellular animals, and the quest for a gene toolkit associated with the emergence of stem cells in a common ancestor of all metazoans remains a major challenge for evolutionary biology. We reconstructed the conserved gene repertoire of animal stem cells by transcriptomic profiling of totipotent archeocytes in the demosponge Ephydatia fluviatilis and by tracing shared molecular signatures with flatworm and Hydra stem cells. Phylostratigraphy analyses indicated that most of these stem-cell genes predate animal origin, with only few metazoan innovations, notably including several partners of the Piwi machinery known to promote genome stability. The ancestral stem-cell transcriptome is strikingly poor in transcription factors. Instead, it is rich in RNA regulatory actors, including components of the "germ-line multipotency program" and many RNA-binding proteins known as critical regulators of mammalian embryonic stem cells.
Keywords: Porifera; RNA binding; evolution; stem cells; uPriSCs.