School of Animal and Microbial Sciences, The University of Reading, United Kingdom.
Hox gene clusters are linked arrays of related homeobox genes with important roles in patterning the main body axis of animal embryos. Almost all invertebrates analyzed in detail, including a cephalochordate, have a single Hox gene cluster. In contrast, mammals have four such clusters inferred to have arisen by duplication. Data from other jawed vertebrates, including teleost fish, suggest they have at least four Hox gene clusters, implying that cluster duplication dates to very early in vertebrate evolution. Lampreys descended from one of the earliest vertebrate lineages and are thus critical in dating the duplication events. Here we analyze the Hox gene complement of a freshwater lamprey, Lampetra, using degenerate PCR. By analysis of the DNA sequences, deduced protein sequences, and by comparison to previous data from the distantly related sea lamprey, we conclude that lampreys have approximately 21 Hox genes from paralogous groups 1-10, plus a group 13 Hox gene. The data support the presence of three Hox gene clusters in lampreys more strongly than they support the presence of one, two or four gene clusters. We discuss how this situation may have arisen in evolution.