Background: Germ lines are the cell lineages that give rise to the sperm and eggs in animals. The germ lines first arise from primordial germ cells (PGCs) during embryogenesis: these form from either a presumed derived mode of preformed germ plasm (inheritance) or from an ancestral mechanism of inductive cell-cell signalling (induction). Numerous genes involved in germ line specification and development have been identified and functionally studied. However, little is known about the molecular evolutionary dynamics of germ line genes in metazoan model systems.
Results: Here, we studied the molecular evolution of germ line genes within three metazoan model systems. These include the genus Drosophila (N=34 genes, inheritance), the fellow insect Apis (N=30, induction), and their more distant relative Caenorhabditis (N=23, inheritance). Using multiple species and established phylogenies in each genus, we report that germ line genes exhibited marked variation in the constraint on protein sequence divergence (dN/dS) and codon usage bias (CUB) within each genus. Importantly, we found that de novo lineage-specific inheritance (LSI) genes in Drosophila (osk, pgc) and in Caenorhabditis (pie-1, pgl-1), which are essential to germ plasm functions under the derived inheritance mode, displayed rapid protein sequence divergence relative to the other germ line genes within each respective genus. We show this may reflect the evolution of specialized germ plasm functions and/or low pleiotropy of LSI genes, features not shared with other germ line genes. In addition, we observed that the relative ranking of dN/dS and of CUB between genera were each more strongly correlated between Drosophila and Caenorhabditis, from different phyla, than between Drosophila and its insect relative Apis, suggesting taxonomic differences in how germ line genes have evolved.
Conclusions: Taken together, the present results advance our understanding of the evolution of animal germ line genes within three well-known metazoan models. Further, the findings provide insights to the molecular evolution of germ line genes with respect to LSI status, pleiotropy, adaptive evolution as well as PGC-specification mode.
Keywords: Apis; Caenorhabditis; Codon usage; Drosophila; Germ line genes; Metazoans; Molecular evolution; Primordial germ cells; Protein divergence; Specification mode.