Tracing the evolutionary history of blood cells to the unicellular ancestor of animals

Blood. 2022 Dec 15;140(24):2611-2625. doi: 10.1182/blood.2022016286.


Blood cells are thought to have emerged as phagocytes in the common ancestor of animals followed by the appearance of novel blood cell lineages such as thrombocytes, erythrocytes, and lymphocytes, during evolution. However, this speculation is not based on genetic evidence and it is still possible to argue that phagocytes in different species have different origins. It also remains to be clarified how the initial blood cells evolved; whether ancient animals have solely developed de novo programs for phagocytes or they have inherited a key program from ancestral unicellular organisms. Here, we traced the evolutionary history of blood cells, and cross-species comparison of gene expression profiles revealed that phagocytes in various animal species and Capsaspora (C.) owczarzaki, a unicellular organism, are transcriptionally similar to each other. We also found that both phagocytes and C. owczarzaki share a common phagocytic program, and that CEBPα is the sole transcription factor highly expressed in both phagocytes and C. owczarzaki. We further showed that the function of CEBPα to drive phagocyte program in nonphagocytic blood cells has been conserved in tunicate, sponge, and C. owczarzaki. We finally showed that, in murine hematopoiesis, repression of CEBPα to maintain nonphagocytic lineages is commonly achieved by polycomb complexes. These findings indicate that the initial blood cells emerged inheriting a unicellular organism program driven by CEBPα and that the program has also been seamlessly inherited in phagocytes of various animal species throughout evolution.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blood Cells
  • Eukaryota* / genetics
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Gene Expression Regulation
  • Mice
  • Phylogeny