Genome-wide survey and expression analysis of the bHLH-PAS genes in the amphioxus Branchiostoma floridae reveal both conserved and diverged expression patterns between cephalochordates and vertebrates
© Li et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2014
Received: 10 February 2014
Accepted: 7 May 2014
Published: 3 June 2014
The bHLH-PAS transcription factors are found in both protostomes and deuterostomes. They are involved in many developmental and physiological processes, including regional differentiation of the central nervous system, tube-formation, hypoxia signaling, aromatic hydrocarbon sensing, and circadian rhythm regulation. To understand the evolution of these genes in chordates, we analyzed the bHLH-PAS genes of the basal chordate amphioxus (Branchiostoma floridae).
From the amphioxus draft genome database, we identified ten bHLH-PAS genes, nine of which could be assigned to known orthologous families. The tenth bHLH-PAS gene could not be assigned confidently to any known bHLH family; however, phylogenetic analysis clustered this gene with arthropod Met family genes and two spiralian bHLH-PAS-containing sequences, suggesting that they may share the same ancestry. We examined temporal and spatial expression patterns of these bHLH-PAS genes in developing amphioxus embryos. We found that BfArnt, BfNcoa, BfSim, and BfHifα were expressed in the central nervous system in patterns similar to those of their vertebrate homologs, suggesting that their functions may be conserved. By contrast, the amphioxus BfAhr and BfNpas4 had expression patterns distinct from those in vertebrates. These results imply that there were changes in gene regulation after the divergence of cephalochordates and vertebrates.
We have identified ten bHLH-PAS genes from the amphioxus genome and determined the embryonic expression profiles for these genes. In addition to the nine currently recognized bHLH-PAS families, our survey suggests that the BfbHLHPAS-orphan gene along with arthropod Met genes and the newly identified spiralian bHLH-PAS-containing sequences represent an ancient group of genes that were lost in the vertebrate lineage. In a comparison with the expression patterns of the vertebrate bHLH-PAS paralogs, which are the result of whole-genome duplication, we found that although several members seem to retain conserved expression patterns during chordate evolution, many duplicated paralogs may have undergone subfunctionalization and neofunctionalization in the vertebrate lineage. In addition, our survey of amphioxus bHLH-PAS gene models from genome browser with experimentally verified cDNA sequences calls into question the accuracy of the current in silico gene annotation of the B. floridae genome.
The bHLH-PAS proteins are metazoan transcription factors characterized by the presence of a basic-helix-loop-helix (bHLH) domain and a Per-ARNT-Sim (PAS) domain. The bHLH domain is composed of an N-terminal DNA-binding basic (b) region followed by two α-helices connected by a loop (HLH) . The HLH region promotes dimerization, which enables the formation of homodimeric or heterodimeric bHLH protein complexes, and the basic regions of the complexes recognize specific response elements on DNA . Metazoan bHLH transcription factors are grouped into 45 families and 6 higher-order groups from A to F [3, 4]. The PAS domain is named for the Period (Per, from fruit fly), Aryl hydrocarbon receptor nuclear translocator (ARNT, from human), and Single-minded (Sim, from fruit fly) proteins, in which the homology of this domain was first discovered [5, 6]. PAS domains consist of approximately 275 amino acids and can be subdivided into two PAS repeats: PAS A and PAS B [7, 8]. PAS domains not only promote heterodimerization but also have other functions, including ligand binding and interaction with non-PAS proteins (reviewed in [5, 7]). PAS domain-containing proteins are present in Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya .
Genes encoding proteins with both bHLH and PAS domains (bHLH-PAS genes) are believed to have an ancient origin, as they exist throughout metazoa, from humans to basal animals, such as the demosponge Amphimedon queenslandica and the placozoa Trichoplax adhaerens[9, 10]. Most bHLH-PAS families have been placed in the higher-order group C based on their molecular phylogeny and DNA-binding specificity, but previous analyses were equivocal on whether these bHLH-PAS proteins form a monophyletic group [3, 4].
The bilaterian bHLH-PAS protein complement is stable in terms of the number of families; model protostomes and vertebrates share nine bHLH-PAS families [3, 11], as follows: Nuclear receptor coactivator (NCOA/SRC), Circadian locomotor output cycles kaput (Clock), Aryl hydrocarbon receptor nuclear translocator (ARNT), Brain and muscle ARNT-like (Bmal/cycle), Aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR), neuronal PAS domain protein 4 (NPAS4/dysfusion), Single-minded (Sim), Trachealess (Trh in fly and NPAS1/3 in vertebrates), and Hypoxia inducible factor (HIF). These bHLH-PAS proteins are involved in various important developmental and/or physiological processes, including the regional specification or differentiation of the central nervous system (CNS) (Sim family in fly and mammals; Npas1 and Npas3 in mammals) [5, 7], tube-formation (trh and dys in fly; Npas1 and Npas3 in mouse) [12–14], hypoxia signaling (HIF family) [15, 16], aromatic hydrocarbon sensing (AHR in mammals) [17, 18], and circadian rhythm (Clock and Bmal/cycle families) [19, 20]. However, another protein family, the Methoprene-tolerant (Met) proteins, also contains bHLH and PAS domains , but to date this family has no well-characterized ortholog in non-arthropod organisms.
The evolution of bHLH-PAS protein functions, however, remains poorly understood. Certain functions appear to be highly conserved between protostomes and vertebrates; for example, genes of the HIF family participate in hypoxia responses in diverse organisms (reviewed in ). By contrast, some orthologs play very different roles; for example, whereas mouse Npas4 is related to neural activity in the CNS [22–24], its homolog in fly, dysfusion, is primarily required for regulating the development of tracheal fusion cells [25, 26].
Comparative genomic studies have shown that the vertebrate lineage has undergone at least two rounds of whole-genome duplication [27, 28]. As such, it is possible to deduce ancestral gene function and functional divergence in different lineages by comparing vertebrate genes to those of organisms that did not undergo duplication (‘pre-duplicated’ genes). Such organisms include the amphioxus (Branchiostoma floridae), which has recently been suggested to be the basal chordate clade [28–31]. Studies on amphioxus have been facilitated by the sequencing of its genome and by the available cDNA and EST resources [28, 32–34]. Previous surveys based on gene models predicted the existence of nine families of bHLH-PAS genes in amphioxus, but experimental validation of transcripts and the expression patterns of these genes were lacking [4, 11]. To verify the bHLH-PAS gene complement in the amphioxus genome, we manually annotated amphioxus bHLH-PAS genes from the draft genome of B. floridae using available cDNA sequences, and we further examined the developmental expression patterns of these bHLH-PAS genes. We also compared our bHLH-PAS cDNA sequences to corresponding gene models, revealing frequent inaccuracies in the original models.
Identification of bHLH-PAS genes in the amphioxus genome and procurement of bHLH-PAS cDNA sequences
To identify amphioxus bHLH-PAS genes, sequences of representative human bHLH-PAS proteins were used to perform separate searches of the B. floridae genome [28, 32] and the amphioxus cDNA and EST database . The family names, protein names, and accession numbers of human proteins used are: NCOA (SRC): NCOA2 [Swiss-Prot: Q15596]; Clock: CLOCK [Swiss-Prot: O15516.1]; ARNT: ARNT [Swiss-Prot: P27540.1]; Bmal/cycle: BMAL1 [Swiss-Prot: O00327.2]; AHR: AHR [Swiss-Prot: P35869.2]; NPAS4/dysfusion: NPAS4 [Swiss-Prot: Q8IUM7.1]; Sim: SIM1 [Swiss-Prot P81133.2]; Trh: NPAS3 [Swiss-Prot: Q8IXF0.1]; and HIF: HIF1A [Swiss-Prot: Q16665.1].
B. floridae bHLH-PAS gene models and identified cDNA clones
Protein ID (Expect value)
cDNA cluster ID (Expect value)
cDNA length (nt)
Full length coding sequence
Best hit human protein
Name given after phylogenetic analyses
Yes (1911 nt)
Bb, NCOA (JN831351.1) 
Yes (2139 nt)
Yes (2418 nt)
63636 (3.72e-137); 63642 (6.95e-109)
No (2343 nt)
110703 (0e0); 96140 (8.13e-77)
No (1782 nt)
MOP3 (BMAL1) (AAC51213.1)
235977 (4.04e-79); 98840 (5.68e-14)
No (915 nt)
No (2526 nt)
No (996 nt)
Bf, AmphiSim (AJ506161.1) 
220692 (1.75e-53); 220681 (4.62e-48); 163191 (1.73e-24); 220639 (4.06e-23) and others
No (1104 nt)
NPAS3 transcript variant 1 (AAO17043.1)
208339 (5.04e-114); 208408 (1.73e-105)
13696 (5e-55); 04181 (4e-51); 00128 (3e-46)
Yes (2676 nt)
Bj, Hifα (HM188448- HM188451) 
Yes (2589 nt)
For tBLASTn searches of the cDNA and EST database, only searches using ARNT and HIF led to EST sequences that gave a reciprocal best-hit relationship. Sequencing of these cDNA clones (bfne124n01 for BfArnt; bfad013f17 and bfad009d19 representing two isoforms for BfHifα) confirmed that they represent the orthologs of the query genes. Searches using other bHLH-PAS proteins gave no reliable results.
The cDNA of gene models without EST clones was amplified by PCR using a cDNA library constructed in the pBluescript vector . PCR was performed with gene-specific primer sets using the Expand High FidelityPLUS PCR System (Roche, Basel, Switzerland). PCR products were ligated into the pGEM®-T easy vector (Promega, Fitchburg, Wisconsin, USA), amplified, and then sequenced. The primers and sizes of the cDNA fragments obtained by PCR amplification are listed in Additional file 1: Table S1.
Domain comparison and phylogenetic analysis
Predicted amphioxus protein sequences were used to search the Pfam database  for conserved domain annotation. The sequences of bHLH-PAS proteins from other species used for comparison and phylogenetic analysis were retrieved from the NCBI protein database with the exception of sea urchin Hifα, which is an unpublished sequence from Dr Yi-Hsien Su’s laboratory. To infer evolutionary relationships, a concatenated alignment of bHLH, PAS A, and PAS B domains of all obtained protein sequences was built with the ClustalW algorithm  of the BioEdit program (version 18.104.22.168) . Phylogenetic analysis using the neighbor-joining method was performed with MEGA5 . The results were further examined using the maximum-likelihood method with RAxML-HPC BlackBox (8.0.9) via the CIPRES Science Gateway [42, 43] with the same alignment.
To further investigate the phylogenetic affinity of BfbHLHPAS-orphan and arthropod Met proteins, we used a BfbHLHPAS-orphan peptide sequence to perform BLASTp searches onto the Genome Browser for Branchiostoma belcheri, B.belcheri_HapV2_proteins database [44, 45]. We found a predicted sequence (203360_PRF0, denoted as Bb_orphan in this study) that was almost identical to our ‘Bf orphan’ protein (high BLAST score, expect value = 0.0). We also searched the newly available genome data of Capitella teleta (Annelida) and Lottia gigantea (Mollusca)  and retrieved three highest-score sequences from each genome. Phylogenetic analyses of these sequences were performed.
Adult amphioxus animals were collected in Tampa Bay, Florida, USA, during the summer breeding season. Gametes were obtained by electric stimulation. Fertilization and culturing of the embryos were carried out as previously described . Amphioxus embryos were staged according to Hirakow and Kajita [48, 49], and neurula-stage embryos were further divided into finer stages according to Lu et al. .
To examine the expression level of each bHLH-PAS gene at representative embryonic stages and in adults, cDNA samples were prepared as previously described . To examine the expression of circadian clock-related genes in amphioxus cerebral vesicle, we raised post-metamorphosis amphioxus juveniles in a 14:10-h light/dark cycle for more than two weeks. Approximately 3.5 hours after light on/off, the animals were sacrificed, and total RNA of the anterior body part (approximately 10% of body length) was isolated using the RNeasy Micro kit (Qiagen, Hilden, Germany) and then reverse transcribed using the iScript cDNA synthesis kit (Bio-Rad, Hercules, California, USA) as previously described . We also designed quantitative PCR (Q-PCR) primers based on the gene model of BfPeriod (the Joint Genome Institute (JGI) genome browser, protein ID: 67319) to determine whether expression of circadian clock-related genes follows circadian oscillation. The Q-PCR primers used are listed in Additional file 2: Table S2. The Q-PCR analysis was performed on a Roche LightCycler 480 machine using the LightCycler 480 SYBR Green I Master system (Roche). The expression level of each gene was normalized to the 18S rRNA level of each sample. All products of Q-PCR reactions were verified by sequencing.
In situ hybridization and image acquisition
To synthesize riboprobes, cDNA fragments were amplified as templates. For BfNcoa, BfAhr, and BfSim, cDNA fragments ligated into the pGEM®-T easy vector (Promega) were directly amplified with T7 and SP6 primers. For BfNpas4, BfArnt, and BfHifα, we designed primers to amplify appropriate fragments as templates. Antisense or sense digoxigenin (DIG)-labeled riboprobes were synthesized using DIG RNA labeling mix (Roche) with T7 or SP6 RNA polymerase (Promega), depending on the insert orientation. Sense riboprobes were synthesized as negative controls for all the genes we examined. Whole-mount in situ hybridization on amphioxus embryos was performed as previously described . To detect BfHifα expression in amphioxus juveniles, fixed samples (approximately 1 cm long) were transverse-sectioned (16 μm thick) on a cryostat (CM3050s, Leica, Wetzlar, Germany), thaw-mounted on glass slides (MAS-GP type A coated glass slide, Matsunami, Kishiwada City, Japan) and stored at -20°C. In situ hybridization of cryosection samples was performed as for whole-mount samples, but with the following modification: cryosections were thawed, dried at 37°C for 1 h, and washed in phosphate-buffered saline with Tween 20 (PBST) three times; proteinase K treatment was omitted and the samples were rinsed in 0.1 M triethanolamine before proceeding with the acetic anhydride treatment. The rest of the procedure was the same as the described in situ hybridization method. Images of embryos were taken using a Zeiss Axio Imager A1 microscope with a Zeiss AxioCam MRc CCD camera, and images of cryosections were taken using a Leica Z16APO microscope with a Leica DFC 300FX camera. Double-fluorescent in situ hybridization was performed essentially as described previously . Dinitrophenol (DNP)-labeled BfSim antisense riboprobe was synthesized using Label IT® nucleic acid labeling reagents (Mirus, Madison, Wisconsin, USA), and DIG-labeled antisense riboprobe for the pan-neural marker AmphiElav/Hu was synthesized as described . We used anti-DIG-POD and anti-DNP-POD antibodies (Roche) to detect the riboprobes, and then used the TSA Plus Cyanine 3 & Fluorescein system (PerkinElmer, Waltham, Massachusetts, USA) to amplify the fluorescent signals. Samples were photographed using a Leica TCS-SP5 confocal microscope. Adobe Photoshop CS4 was used to minimally adjust the brightness of photographs, as well as to construct montage images of whole larvae from multiple photographs.
Comparisons of obtained cDNA sequences to corresponding genomic scaffolds and gene models
The obtained cDNA sequences were used to perform BLASTn searches against the B. floridae draft genome (Bf_v1.0 unmasked assembly), to determine the relationship between the cDNA, the genomic scaffolds, and the corresponding gene models. The ambiguous result of BfBmal-scaffold 279 was further analyzed with the Spidey program [52, 53]. Similar amphioxus genomic scaffolds or scaffold regions were compared via Blast 2 sequences (NCBI).
Identification of amphioxus bHLH-PAS genes
In this study, more than 18 gene models were recovered in the BLAST searches of the B. floridae filtered gene models database. In Table 1, models having reciprocal best-hit relationships and including the bHLH and/or PAS domains were recorded and initially assigned to a particular family, and these models were used in subsequent investigations. Because of the high allelic polymorphism of the amphioxus genome , we found many redundant gene models in the current assembly. To verify the existence and the expression of the identified gene models, we searched the cDNA and EST database or used PCR amplification to find supporting evidence. We also used a previously reported gene model (117200)  to query the cDNA and EST database and recovered the cDNA cluster 16184 (clone bfeg037n07) with an expect-value of 1e-76. This cDNA clone was sequenced and analyzed. It corresponds to two models (117200 and 125569) but could not be assigned to any known bHLH family. Thus, we provisionally named it BfbHLHPAS-orphan. In sum, by PCR cloning and searching the cDNA and EST library we identified 10 amphioxus bHLH-PAS genes corresponding to 11 cDNA sequences (NCBI accession numbers [GenBank:KC305624 to KC305634]; Table 1).
We used these cDNAs to perform BLASTx searches on the NCBI nr human protein database; as Table 1 shows, all cDNA sequences, except the BfbHLHPAS-orphan, hit the initial query human proteins or their paralogs within the same family (ARNT/ARNT2). This reciprocal best-hit relationship was the first evidence to support the orthology of each family . The assignment of the BfbHLHPAS-orphan gene will be discussed in following sections.
Conserved domains of bHLH-PAS proteins
Based on the sequences of cDNA clones or assemblies, although without the full-length coding sequences of many genes, all of the predicted proteins have conserved bHLH, PAS A, and PAS B domains (Additional file 3: Figure S1). The sequence alignments of the bHLH, PAS A, and PAS B domains of amphioxus and selected human proteins show significant conservation of these protein domains between human and amphioxus (Additional file 4: Figure S2). In addition, the BfHifα protein has a presumed oxygen-dependent degradation domain and C-terminal trans-activation domain (Additional file 3: Figure S1). Within these domains, presumed hydroxylation sites (two proline sites, one asparagine site), which are important in stability and activity regulation, are also conserved (Additional file 5: Figure S3). Predicted proteins from two forms of BfHifα cDNA are nearly identical except that the short isoform (‘s’ in Additional files 3 and 5) lacks the N-terminal part of the presumed oxygen-dependent degradation domain including the first presumed hydroxylation target proline.
Temporal expression patterns of bHLH-PAS genes
In addition, homologs of Bmal/cycle and Clock families are known to participate in circadian rhythm regulation; therefore, we further examined the expression levels of BfBmal and BfClock, as well as that of another presumed ‘clock gene’, BfPeriod, during the light- or dark-phase of incubation using Q-PCR. We found that while the expression level of BfPeriod was significantly higher during the light period, the expression levels of both BfClock and BfBmal were not significantly different between the light period and the dark period (Additional file 6: Figure S4).
Spatial expression patterns of bHLH-PAS genes
We also determined the spatial expression patterns of BfArnt, BfNcoa, BfAhr, BfSim, BfNpas4, and BfHifα by in situ hybridization. However, we could not obtain successful in situ hybridization of BfClock, BfBmal, BfNpas1/3, or BfbHLHPAS-orphan to show their spatial expression patterns.
The bHLH-PAS genes of the B. floridae genome and the evolution of bHLH-PAS families in chordates
To discuss the bHLH-PAS genes, it is best to begin by reviewing the aliases of these bHLH-PAS families (orthologous gene clusters). First, the name ‘Bmal/cycle’ is used here for this family based on the naming used in previous reports [3, 4, 57], although McIntosh et al. suggested that mammalian Arntl (Bmal1) and Arntl2 (Bmal2) be renamed as Cycle1 and Cycle2 based on their functions and expression patterns . Second, for the NCOA/SRC family, we use NCOA as the family name as McIntosh et al. suggested , although some previous reports used SRC [3, 4, 57].
Before this study, amphioxus bHLH-PAS genes, including Ncoa of B. belcheri, Hifα of B. belcheri tsingtauense (B. japonicum) , Bmal of B. lanceolatum, and Sim of B. floridae, had been identified. The present study has confirmed the Ncoa, Hifα, and Bmal homologs of B. floridae, and identified six additional bHLH-PAS genes. Thus, we conclude that there are ten amphioxus bHLH-PAS genes in total, and nine of them correspond to nine well-known bHLH-PAS families shared by all bilaterians. The existence of nine amphioxus bHLH-PAS genes of conserved families is consistent with the previous suggestion that the number of these families is stable . These nine bHLH-PAS families are shared by deuterostomes and protostomes, suggesting that they originated in the last common ancestor of all bilaterian animals. In vertebrates, many bHLH-PAS families have more than one paralog. For example, eight of nine human bHLH-PAS families have more than one member . The emergence of multiple copies of these genes in vertebrates may be the result of vertebrate-specific whole-genome duplication and subsequent losses . The vertebrate-specific duplicated genes may be subject to functional divergence by neofunctionalization or subfunctionalization .
The tenth amphioxus bHLH-PAS gene, BfbHLHPAS-orphan, was discovered in this study, and its putative ortholog in another amphioxus species (B. belcheri) was also identified by our BLAST search. Our phylogenetic analysis suggests that BfbHLHPAS-orphan may be related to arthropod Met genes and two spiralian predicted sequences (Figures 1 and 2). Extensive searches on various vertebrate genomes have not yet found an ortholog of Met or amphioxus ‘bHLHPAS-orphans’. It should be noted that Met proteins, which had been found only in arthropods , also contain bHLH, PAS A, and PAS B domains, but previous large-scale phylogenetic analyses on the bHLH superfamily had neglected them. Thus, Met proteins, BfbHLHPAS-orphan, and the two sequences (Ct199895 and Lg237855) from spiralians may make up another orthologous bHLH-PAS family, as we show in our phylogenetic analysis (Figures 1 and 2). It is possible that during chordate evolution the BfbHLHPAS-orphan has been retained in cephalochordates, but its ortholog was lost in vertebrates. Another possibility is that this gene family emerged independently in the amphioxus lineage and in protostomes by duplication or domain shuffling. Genome-wide analyses in more metazoan phyla for comparing the full complements of bHLH-PAS genes in their genomes should help to shed more light on this issue.
Expression patterns of amphioxus bHLH-PAS genes shed light on the evolution of the bHLH-PAS superfamily
By comparing different animal models, similarities and differences of expression patterns of bHLH-PAS genes can be used to deduce the evolutionary themes of each bHLH-PAS family. Some amphioxus bHLH-PAS genes are expressed in patterns similar to those of their vertebrate homologs. This implies that amphioxus and vertebrates have comparable regulatory networks controlling these genes and that these networks may have origins in the common chordate ancestor over 520 million years ago. An example of conserved function was described for Hifα of another amphioxus species, B. belcheri tsingtauense (B. japonicum), with functions of oxygen-sensing, nuclear localization, and transcriptional regulation . Although having conserved bHLH and PAS domains may imply functional stability by DNA-binding and dimerization, more biochemical evidence is required to properly elucidate the nature of amphioxus bHLH-PAS family members. Some amphioxus bHLH-PAS genes show different spatial expression patterns than those of their vertebrate homologs, suggesting changes in gene regulation after the divergence of the two lineages. The details of each family are discussed below.
The ARNT family
In amphioxus, BfArnt is expressed at two levels: first, it is broadly expressed at a low level; second, a higher level of expression specifically localizes in neural tissues. Previous studies indicate that many ARNT family members are broadly expressed; they act as a general dimerization partner that can heterodimerize with many bHLH-PAS proteins and activate or repress different sets of downstream genes [5, 7]. Their function depends on their dimerization partners, and the existence of dimerization partners may be restricted by developmental spatial cues (sim, trh, dys in fly), by ligand-induced activity (vertebrate AHRs), or by hypoxia-dependent stability or activity (HIF family) [5, 25, 62–64]. Therefore, the basal and widespread expression of BfArnt may be consistent with other ARNT orthologs: a broadly expressed bHLH-PAS protein dimerization partner.
By contrast, the CNS-specific expression of BfArnt may be comparable to Arnt2 in mice. Two murine ARNT paralogs have different expression patterns: Arnt is widely expressed, while Arnt2 expression is more restricted to the neural-epithelium [62, 65]. It is possible that the functions of the ancient Arnt gene were partitioned in vertebrate ARNT paralogs after the gene-duplication event .
The NCOA family
Our result shows that BfNcoa has CNS-specific expression. This may be comparable to vertebrate models. In the developing mouse embryo, Ncoa1 (SRC-1) is highly expressed in olfactory epithelium, brain, anterior pituitary, and other organs [66, 67]; mouse Ncoa2 (SRC-2) is expressed in the developing anterior pituitary . Similarly, Xenopus NCOA paralogs are expressed in various parts of the CNS . These findings suggest that these vertebrate NCOA paralogs contribute to CNS development. In a previous study using the Asian amphioxus B. belcheri, Ncoa expression was not detected in the CNS, and it was proposed that NCOA expression may have shifted from non-CNS to CNS only in the vertebrate lineage (supplementary figure 4 in ). By contrast, our results clearly show that BfNcoa is indeed expressed in CNS during B. floridae embryogenesis. The difference between our results and those of Chen et al.  may stem from differences in species, experimental protocols, riboprobe sensitivity, or the developmental stage examined. In any event, our results suggest that NCOA function in the CNS is likely conserved in chordates. However, the NCOA homolog of fruit fly, taiman, is required in cell motility of ovarian follicular border cells and in axon migration [69, 70], and little is known about whether NCOA homologs have a role in the CNS of non-chordates.
The AHR family
In well-studied animal models, the AHR family members have diverse functions. In fruit fly, spineless (the AHR homolog) is expressed in precursors of antenna, legs, and bristle, and it is required for normal development of these structures [71, 72]. In Caenorhabditis elegans, ahr-1 participates in specification of GABAergic neurons . The vertebrate AHR family is comprised of AHR1, AHR2, and AHR repressor . Vertebrate AHRs are required for the normal development of various organs, including nervous system and vascular system [75, 76]. However, the well-known role of mammalian AHRs and AHR repressors is in the response to exposure to aromatic hydrocarbons, which was suggested to be a vertebrate innovation . Mammalian AHRs (AHR1 and AHR2) are inducible by aryl hydrocarbons (including dioxin) and regulate the transcription of metabolic enzymes, while AHR repressors can repress the activity of AHRs (reviewed in [17, 18]).
Amphioxus BfAhr is expressed in cells surrounding the mouth and in some cells in the epidermis of the rostrum. The former is reminiscent of SoxB1c-expressing ectodermal cells, which have been suggested to be neurogenic ; the latter is reminiscent of epidermal sensory neurons . It is tempting to suggest that amphioxus BfAhr-expressing cells may be related to chemosensory neurons, and a neurogenic role of BfAhr is more like that in other protostomes. No clear BfAhr expression was discovered in the vascular system, so it is likely that the involvement of AHRs in vertebrate vascular development is a more recently derived characteristic.
The Sim family
Sim in fruit fly is expressed in ventral-lateral ectodermal cells and is required for CNS midline specification [5, 79]. In mouse, the two Sim paralogs (Sim1 and Sim2) are transcriptional repressors . They are expressed in slightly different patterns: in the CNS, both are expressed in diencephalon, and Sim1 expression extends caudally to the mesencephalon (midbrain); outside the CNS, the two paralogs are also expressed in different patterns . Mouse Sim1 is required for the normal development of the paraventricular nucleus and supraoptic nucleus in the hypothalamus , while mouse Sim2 is required in the normal development of the palate, where no Sim1 is expressed .
The expression of amphioxus BfSim in the anterior CNS and mesoendoderm has been described previously, and it was suggested that amphioxus BfSim expression marks the amphioxus homolog of the posterior diencephalon and midbrain . Based on co-expression with AmphiHu/Elav, the six newly discovered cell clusters in the trunk CNS with BfSim expression (open arrowheads in Figure 7) in this study are likely to be postmitotic neurons. In addition, BfSim expression co-localizes with BfArnt. This suggests that the formation of a heterodimer for regulating downstream genes is a conserved function of these two factors [64, 84].
The NPAS4/dysfusion family
Members of the NPAS4/dysfusion family have different functions in flies and mammals. In fruit fly, dysfusion dimerizes with tango (tgo, the fly ARNT homolog) and is required for the branching and fusion of tracheal cells [25, 26]. In mammals, Npas4 dimerizes with Arnt2 or Arnt . Npas4 in mouse is expressed in the postnatal hippocampus  and Npas4 in rat is required in the formation and retention of fear conditioning , but newborn Npas4-/--mutant mice were morphologically indistinguishable from wild-types . The expression pattern of amphioxus BfNpas4 differed markedly from that of fruit fly or mammal; no expression was found in amphioxus embryonic CNS. It is possible that NPAS4/dysfusion members in these three lineages are regulated by different mechanisms.
The HIF family
Members of the HIF family participate in the hypoxia response in various animals. The stability and activity of HIF proteins are regulated by oxygen-dependent enzymes, and this mechanism is likely present in all animals . ‘Invertebrate animals,’ from placozoa to amphioxus, have only one HIF member in their genomes, whereas mammals have three members of the HIF family: Hif1α, Hif2α, and Hif3α[10, 86]. Three paralogs of mammalian HIF, with different functions, are retained in mammalian genomes. The functional differences between Hif1α and Hif2α may be the result of partitioning ancestral functions. However, the mammalian Hif3α protein is a transcriptional repressor, which is most likely a novel function that emerged in vertebrates. Under hypoxia, invertebrate HIFs or mammalian Hif1α or Hif2α proteins dimerize with ARNT members and activate downstream genes [15, 16]. HIFs are also required in mammalian development, and the Hif1a-/-mouse is not viable and has CNS defects . Hif1α mutations also impair the development of placenta, heart, and bones (reviewed in ).
Our results on the embryonic expression pattern of BfHifα are reminiscent of the pattern of BfArnt: a broad expression at low levels and stronger expression specifically localized to the CNS. These suggest two roles of BfHifα: first, the ubiquitous weak expression supports a function as a hypoxia sensor at the cellular level; and, second, the embryonic CNS-specific strong expression implies that it is required in normal neuronal development. The biochemical properties of another amphioxus species’ HIF protein have previously been characterized . Similar to the previous report , we discovered different transcript isoforms of BfHifα in B. floridae. Isoforms that lack part of the oxygen-dependent degradation domain may be hydroxylated and then degraded under a slightly different oxygen level, providing a different level of regulation.
The ‘clock genes’ and circadian rhythm
Bmal and Period genes show expression oscillation in a bent dumbbell-shaped region in the cerebral vesicle of amphioxus [54, 60]. Using Q-PCR to quantify mRNA, although we observed different BfPeriod expression levels between the day and night period, we could not detect significant differences in the expression levels of BfClock and BfBmal at different time points during the daylight cycle. For Clock, despite the fact that fly dClock has an oscillatory expression in fly heads , the murine Clock (mClock) mRNA and mClock protein show no diurnal oscillation in mouse brain [89, 90]. For Bmal, the disparity between our Q-PCR result and in situ hybridization in the previous report may be due to different quantification methods. Semi-quantification by in situ hybridization and image processing may be more sensitive in locating expression changes in particular cell groups. Our Q-PCR result may be affected by other BfBmal-expressing cells - a previous study on laboratory rats reported that different nervous nuclei express clock-related genes with a dramatic antiphase .
Comparison of amphioxus bHLH-PAS cDNA with current genomic scaffolds and gene models reveals limitations of the current B. floridae gene models
To our knowledge, our study is likely the first attempt to comprehensively annotate an amphioxus gene family using both computer-predicted gene models and experimentally verified cDNA sequences. Due to the high genetic variation between the two haplotypes of the B. floridae genome, it has been reported that the two alleles of a single locus are frequently represented by separate gene models in the current assembly [28, 92]. By careful comparisons, we have been able to extract the most representative gene model for each bHLH-PAS family gene in B. floridae. However, we found that eight out of the ten B. floridae bHLH-PAS genes are depicted by problematic gene models in the current genome assembly. Our discovery calls for more attention to the current B. floridae genome assembly and gene model annotation. Because the cephalochordate amphioxus is widely considered as a key organism for understanding the evolution of chordates , information about its genome, especially the protein-coding gene contents, are frequently used in comparative genomic analyses [94, 95]. Our results show that the existing set of B. floridae gene models may contain many problematic models. To improve the current amphioxus gene model annotation, more data from experimentally verified transcripts will need to be incorporated into gene model prediction. With the advance of the high-throughput next-generation sequencing technologies, we anticipate that next-generation sequencing transcriptome data from RNA-sequencing analysis will help to address this issue.
In this study, we identified ten bHLH-PAS genes from the amphioxus genome and determined the embryonic expression profiles for these genes. In addition to the nine currently recognized bHLH-PAS families, our survey across various bilaterian genomes suggests that the tenth amphioxus bHLH-PAS member (BfbHLHPAS-orphan) along with arthropod Met genes and the two newly identified spiralian bHLH-PAS-containing sequences may represent an ancient group of genes that was already present in the common ancestor of bilaterian animals but lost in the vertebrate lineage. Our expression analysis using in situ hybridization not only provides new spatial expression information on three previously unknown genes - Arnt, Ahr, and Npas4 - and on Hifα, but also provides clear evidence to revise previous descriptions of the embryonic expression of amphioxus Ncoa and Sim genes. Thus, our results provide a more accurate account for further comparative studies. Comparing the expression patterns of the vertebrate bHLH-PAS paralogs, which are the result of whole-genome duplication, we found that although several members seem to retain conserved expression patterns during chordate evolution, many duplicated paralogs may have undergone subfunctionalization and neofunctionalization in the vertebrate lineage. The discovery that Arnt, Ncoa, Sim, and Hifα are expressed in certain domains within the developing CNS in both amphioxus and vertebrates suggests the functional conservation of these genes in chordate CNS development. Moreover, we found that Arnt and Sim are co-expressed in six post-mitotic neuronal cell clusters within the amphioxus CNS, which is consistent with their functions in forming heterodimers to regulate downstream targets in model vertebrates. Further characterization of these specific neuronal cell clusters in amphioxus CNS and their comparison to vertebrate CNS neurons may provide more information on the organization and evolution of CNS neurons in chordates.
We thank Linda Holland and Nicholas Holland at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, and Daniel Meulemans Medeiros at the University of Colorado, Boulder for collecting B. floridae adults. We also thank Cho-Fat Hui, director of the Institute of Cellular and Organismic Biology (ICOB) Marine Research Station, and Che-Huang Tung, Meng-Yun Tang, and Tzu-Kai Huang for culturing amphioxus in our laboratory. We thank the ICOB core facility for technical support in confocal microscopy. JKY was supported by the National Science Council, Taiwan (NSC101-2923-B-001-004-MY2; NSC102-2311-B-001-011-MY3), and by the Career Development Award from Academia Sinica, Taiwan (AS-98-CDA-L06).
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