Our Closest Wormy Cousins
Indeed, beyond sequencing these two organisms, the team was also interested in identifying ancient gene families that were already present in the deuterostome ancestor. The team compared the genomes of the two acorn worms with the genomes of 32 diverse animals and found that about 8,600 families of genes are homologous, that is, evolutionarily-related, across all deuterostomes and so are confidently inferred to have been present also in the genome of their deuterostome ancestor. Human arms, birds’ wings, cats’ paws and the whales’ flippers are classical examples of homology, because they all derive from the limbs of a common ancestor. As with anatomical structures, genes homology is defined in terms of shared ancestry. Because of later gene duplications and other processes, these 8,600 homologous genes correspond to at least 14,000 genes, or approximately 70%, of the current human genome.
The study also identified clusters of genes that are close together in acorn worm genomes and in the genomes of humans and other vertebrates. The ancient proximity of these gene clusters, preserved over half a billion years, suggests that the genes may function as a unit. One gene cluster connected with the development of the pharynx in vertebrates and acorn worms is particularly interesting. It is shared by all deuterostomes, but not present in non-deuterostome animals such as insects, octopuses, earthworms and flatworms. The pharynx of acorn worms and other animals functions to filter food and to guide it to the digestive system. In humans, this cluster is active in the formation of the thyroid glands and the pharynx. Scientists suggest there is a connection between the function of the modern thyroid and the filter feeding mechanism of acorn worms. This pharyngeal gene cluster contains six genes ordered in a common pattern in all deuterostomes and includes the genes for four proteins that are critical transcriptional regulators that control activation of numerous other genes. Genes ordered in the same way and located next to each other in the chromosomal DNA are linked and transferred together from one generation to the next. Interestingly, not only the DNA that codes for these transcription factor genes is shared among the deuterostomes, but also some of the DNA pieces that are used as binding sites for the transcription factors are conserved among these animals.