Molecular evolution of HoxA13 and the multiple origins of limbless morphologies in amphibians and reptiles

Marina E. Singarete Mariana B. Grizante Sarah R. Milograna Mariana F. Nery Koryu Kin Günter P. Wagner Tiana Kohlsdorf About the authors

Abstract

Developmental processes and their results, morphological characters, are inherited through transmission of genes regulating development. While there is ample evidence that cis-regulatory elements tend to be modular, with sequence segments dedicated to different roles, the situation for proteins is less clear, being particularly complex for transcription factors with multiple functions. Some motifs mediating protein-protein interactions may be exclusive to particular developmental roles, but it is also possible that motifs are mostly shared among different processes. Here we focus on HoxA13, a protein essential for limb development. We asked whether the HoxA13 amino acid sequence evolved similarly in three limbless clades: Gymnophiona, Amphisbaenia and Serpentes. We explored variation in ω (dN/dS) using a maximum-likelihood framework and HoxA13 sequences from 47 species. Comparisons of evolutionary models provided low ω global values and no evidence that HoxA13 experienced relaxed selection in limbless clades. Branch-site models failed to detect evidence for positive selection acting on any site along branches of Amphisbaena and Gymnophiona, while three sites were identified in Serpentes. Examination of alignments did not reveal consistent sequence differences between limbed and limbless species. We conclude that HoxA13 has no modules exclusive to limb development, which may be explained by its involvement in multiple developmental processes.

development; evolution; HoxA13; molecular signatures; limblessness


Introduction

Evolution of morphological diversity has fascinated biologists, but only in the past half-century the investigation of mechanisms underlying the origin and establishment of specific phenotypes became possible through the combination of genetics, evolution and developmental biology in the field so-called Evo-Devo (Evolution of Development, see Raff, 2000Raff RA (2000) Evo-devo: The evolution of a new discipline. Nat Rev Genet 1:74–79.; Hall, 2012Hall BK (2012) Evolutionary developmental biology (Evo-Devo): Past, present, and future. Evolution: Educ Outreach 2:184–193.). Consolidation of Evo-Devo fostered the search for variations in developmental processes likely responsible for the distribution of heritable phenotypic variance that potentially could be molded by natural selection (Brakefield, 2006Brakefield PM (2006) Evo-devo and constraints on selection. Trends Ecol Evol 21:362–368.; 2011Brakefield PM (2011) Evo-devo and accounting for Darwin’s endless forms. Phil Trans R Soc B Biol Sci 366:2069–2075.).

Differences in gene expression during developmental processes often can be explained by sequence variation in cis-regulatory elements but coding region variations of transcription factors are also a possible source of developmental variation. Mutations in cis-regulatory elements have been argued to be a more likely source of adaptive genetic variation, a trend that is often found when investigating cis-regulatory evolution for phenotypic divergence (Stern, 2000Stern DL (2000) Perspective: Evolutionary developmental biology and the problem of variation. Evolution 54:1079–1091.; Wray, 2007Wray GA (2007) The evolutionary significance of cis-regulatory mutations. Nature Rev Genet 8:206–216.; Mansfield, 2013Mansfield JH (2013) Cis-regulatory change associated with snake body plan evolution. Proc Natl Acad Sc USA 110:10473–10474.). Recent studies, however, provide a wide range of evidence supporting the contribution of mutations in coding regions of transcription factor genes for the diversification of phenotypes (Galant and Carroll, 2002Galant R and Carroll SB (2002) Evolution of a transcriptional repression domain in an insect Hox protein. Nature 415:910–913.; Lynch et al., 2008Lynch VJ and Wagner GP (2008) Resurrecting the role of transcription factor change in developmental evolution. Evolution 62:2131–2154., Crow et al., 2009Crow KD, Amemiya CT, Roth J and Wagner GP (2009). Hyper-mutability of HoxA13a and functional divergence from its paralog are associated with the origin of a novel developmental feature in zebrafish and related taxa (cypriniformes). Evolution 63:1574–1592.; Brayer et al., 2011Brayer KJ, Lynch VJ and Wagner GP (2011) Evolution of a derived protein-protein interaction between HoxA11 and Foxo1a in mammals caused by changes in intramolecular regulation. Proc Natl Acad SciUSA 108:E414–E420.). Such findings imply that transcriptions factors do not remain functionally equivalent during evolution (Galant and Carroll, 2002Galant R and Carroll SB (2002) Evolution of a transcriptional repression domain in an insect Hox protein. Nature 415:910–913.; Ronshaugen et al., 2002Ronshaugen M, McGinnis N and McGinnis W (2002) Hox protein mutation and macroevolution of the insect body plan. Nature 415:914–917.; Lynch et al., 2008Lynch VJ and Wagner GP (2008) Resurrecting the role of transcription factor change in developmental evolution. Evolution 62:2131–2154.; Crow et al., 2009Crow KD, Amemiya CT, Roth J and Wagner GP (2009). Hyper-mutability of HoxA13a and functional divergence from its paralog are associated with the origin of a novel developmental feature in zebrafish and related taxa (cypriniformes). Evolution 63:1574–1592.), and that the adaptive evolution of transcription factors proteins may be involved in the origin of new phenotypes (Lynch et al., 2004Lynch VJ, Roth JJ, Takahashi K, Dunn CW, Nonaka DF, Stopper GF and Wagner GP (2004) Adaptive evolution of HoxA-11 and HoxA-13 at the origin of the uterus in mammals. Proc R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 271:2201–2207.; Lynch and Wagner, 2008Lynch VJ and Wagner GP (2008) Resurrecting the role of transcription factor change in developmental evolution. Evolution 62:2131–2154.; Crow et al., 2009Crow KD, Amemiya CT, Roth J and Wagner GP (2009). Hyper-mutability of HoxA13a and functional divergence from its paralog are associated with the origin of a novel developmental feature in zebrafish and related taxa (cypriniformes). Evolution 63:1574–1592.; Brayer et al., 2011Brayer KJ, Lynch VJ and Wagner GP (2011) Evolution of a derived protein-protein interaction between HoxA11 and Foxo1a in mammals caused by changes in intramolecular regulation. Proc Natl Acad SciUSA 108:E414–E420.). A disparity emerging from current literature is that there is ample evidence that cis-regulatory elements tend to be modular, with dedicated sequence segments for different developmental roles, but the role of transcription factor proteins is more complex due to the potential for pleiotropic constraints. Discussions about sequence modules dedicated to specific developmental roles in transcription factor proteins is particularly complex for homeotic proteins involved in multiple functions, and two alternative scenarios emerge (Sivanantharajah and Percival-Smith, 2015Sivanantharajah L and Percival-Smith A (2015) Differential pleiotropy and HOX functional organization. Dev Biol 398:1–10.): there may be specific motifs mediating protein-protein interactions that are exclusive to particular developmental roles, while other motifs within the same protein are shared among different developmental processes, for instance the highly conserved homeodomain. In the second scenario, changes in a given sequence segment that plays two developmental roles likely affect both processes, as well as their results (i.e. the morphological characters established in the developing embryo), so that any motif involved in multiple developmental processes would be expected to be under pleiotropic constraint (for recent discussions about the topic see Pavlicev and Wagner, 2012Pavlicev M and Wagner GP (2012) A model of developmental evolution: Selection, pleiotropy and compensation. Trends Ecol Evol 27:316–322.; Pavlicev and Widder, 2015Pavlicev M and Widder S (2015) Wiring for independence: Positive feedback motifs facilitate individuation of traits and development and evolution. J Exp Zool Mol Dev Evol 324B:104–113.).

The counterpoint between the presence of motifs dedicated to specific developmental roles and a pleiotropic constraint that may be imposed by the commitment of some motifs to multiple functions may be investigated through combination of two approaches: 1) a transcription factor protein known to be involved in more than one developmental process, and 2) a phylogenetic framework where one developmental process was suppressed but another remains effective in the organism. HOX proteins emerge as good candidates because they play central roles during embryo development in the specification of structures along the vertebrate anterior-posterior body axis, and have also acquired several functions including development of limbs and the urogenital system (Hsieh-Li et al., 1995Hsieh-Li HM, Witte DP, Weinstein M, Branford W, Li H, Small K and Potter SS (1995) Hoxa 11 structure, extensive anti-sense transcription, and function in male and female fertility. Development 121:1373–1385.; Taylor et al., 1997Taylor HS, Heuvel GV and Igarashi P (1997) A conserved Hox axis in the mouse and human female reproductive system: Late establishment and persistent adult expression of the Hoxa cluster genes. Biol Reprod 57:1338–1345.; Kobayashi and Behringer, 2003Kobayashi A and Behringer RR (2003) Developmental genetics of the female reproductive tract in mammals. Nat Rev Genet 4:969–980.; Sivanantharajah and Percival-Smith, 2015Sivanantharajah L and Percival-Smith A (2015) Differential pleiotropy and HOX functional organization. Dev Biol 398:1–10.). The transcription factor HoxA13, in particular, is essential for several functions (Fromental-Ramain et al., 1996Fromental-Ramain C, Warot X, Messadecq N, LeMeur M, Dollé P and Chambon P (1996) Hoxa-13 and Hoxd-13 play a crucial role in the patterning of the limb autopod. Development 122:2997–3011.; Innis et al., 2002Innis JW, Goodman FR, Bacchelli C, Williams TM, Mortlock DP, Sateesh P and Guttmacher AE (2002) A HOXA13 allele with a missense mutation in the homeobox and a dinucleotide deletion in the promoter underlies Guttmacher syndrome. Hum Mutat 19:573–574.; Shou et al., 2013Shou S, Carlson HL, Perez WD and Stadler HS (2013) HOXA13 regulates Aldh1a2 expression in the autopod to facilitate interdigital programmed cell death. Dev Dyn 242:687–698.): during limb development it regulates formation of digits, phalangeal joints and carpal/tarsal elements (Stadler et al., 2001Stadler HS, Higgins KM and Capecchi MR (2001) Loss of Eph-receptor expression correlates with loss of cell adhesion and chondrogenic capacity in Hoxa13 mutant limbs. Development 128:4177–4188.; Knosp et al., 2004Knosp WM, Scott V, Bächinger HP and Stadler HS (2004) HOXA13 regulates the expression of bone morphogenetic proteins 2 and 7 to control distal limb morphogenesis. Development 131:4581–4592., 2007Knosp WM, Saneyoshi C, Shou S, Bächinger HP and Stadler HS (2007) Elucidation, quantitative refinement, and in vivo utilization of the HOXA13 DNA binding site. J Biol Chem 282:6843–6853.; Perez et al., 2010Perez WD, Weller CR, Shou S and Stadler HS (2010) Survival of hoxa13 homozygous mutants reveals a novel role in digit patterning and appendicular skeletal development. Dev Dyn 239:446–457.); during organogenesis, it modulates development of digestive and urogenital tracts, including differentiation of the mammalian female reproductive system (Taylor et al., 1997Taylor HS, Heuvel GV and Igarashi P (1997) A conserved Hox axis in the mouse and human female reproductive system: Late establishment and persistent adult expression of the Hoxa cluster genes. Biol Reprod 57:1338–1345.). Moreover, there is evidence for pleiotropy effects on HoxA13 and mutations in this gene simultaneously affect the development of the urogenital system and the limbs (Mortlock and Innis, 1997Mortlock DP and Innis JW (1997) Mutation of HOXA13 in hand-foot-genital syndrome. Nat Genet 15:179–180.; Goodman et al., 2000Goodman FR, Bacchelli C, Brady AF, Brueton LA, Fryns JP, Mortlock DP and Scambler PJ (2000) Novel HOXA13 mutations and the phenotypic spectrum of Hand-Foot-Genital Syndrome. Am J Hum Genet 67:197–202.). Specifically, in mice a 50 base-pair deletion at the first exon of HoxA13 results in hypodactyly (Mortlock et al., 1996Mortlock DP, Post LC and Innis JW (1996) The molecular basis of hypodactyly (Hd): A deletion in Hoxa13 leads to arrest of digital arch formation. Nat Genet 13:284–289.), while the expansion of an N-terminal polyalanine in this first exon is associated with limb and genitourinary abnormalities in humans (Goodman et al., 2000Goodman FR, Bacchelli C, Brady AF, Brueton LA, Fryns JP, Mortlock DP and Scambler PJ (2000) Novel HOXA13 mutations and the phenotypic spectrum of Hand-Foot-Genital Syndrome. Am J Hum Genet 67:197–202.).

A good evolutionary scenario to test for the presence of sequence segments exclusively dedicated to a given function in the pleiotropic HoxA13 gene is the recurrent evolution of limbless morphologies in basal lineages of Tetrapoda. Evolution of snakelike morphologies in Lepidosauria and Lissamphibia is characterized by body elongation and limb loss (Woltering, 2012Woltering JM (2012) From lizard to snake; behind the evolution of an extreme body plan. Curr Genomics 13:e289.). In this scenario, the presence and identity of limb-specific sequence segments in the protein would be supported by identification of sequence changes in HoxA13 that are common to different limbless lineages. In contrast, the likelihood that all motifs involved in limb development are also committed to other developmental functions would receive support if it is found that there are no consistent sequence differences between limbed and limbless species. In the present study we compared the molecular sequence variation of HoxA13 among three tetrapod snakelike lineages that independently lost limbs: Serpentes, Amphisbaenia and Gymnophiona. We used both likelihood-ratio tests implemented in PAML (Yang, 2007Yang Z (2007) PAML 4: Phylogenetic analysis by maximum likelihood. Mol Biol Evol 24:1586–1591.) and visual inspections of the alignments to compare HoxA13 sequences among these three snakelike lineages.

Material and Methods

Tissue samples were obtained from Museum Herpetological Collections or Private Zoological Collections, and the molecular database for HoxA13 assembled was complemented with sequences available at GenBank (see Table S1). Genomic DNA was extracted from the tissue samples using the DNeasy Tissue Kit (Qiagen), following the manufacturer’s instructions. In this study we focused on the first exon of HoxA13 due to described phenotypic effects of mutations in this region and the general conservation of the homeodomain which is coded for in exon 2 (Mortlock et al., 1996Mortlock DP, Post LC and Innis JW (1996) The molecular basis of hypodactyly (Hd): A deletion in Hoxa13 leads to arrest of digital arch formation. Nat Genet 13:284–289.; Goodman et al., 2000Goodman FR, Bacchelli C, Brady AF, Brueton LA, Fryns JP, Mortlock DP and Scambler PJ (2000) Novel HOXA13 mutations and the phenotypic spectrum of Hand-Foot-Genital Syndrome. Am J Hum Genet 67:197–202.). Gene fragments of HoxA13 exon-1 (375 to 455 bp), were amplified from one individual of each species using the following conditions: 50 to 100 ng of DNA and primers at 10 μM concentration combined with PCR Master Mix (Reddymix, 2.5 mM MgCl2; Abgene, Inc.) to a final reaction volume of 50 μL; thermocycling conditions consisted of 30 or 35 cycles (1 min at 94 °C, 1 min of annealing at 48–52 °C, 1 min at 72 °C), followed by a terminal extension step (5 to 8 min at 72 °C). Primers used to amplify Hoxa13 were synthesized based on sequences from Mortlock et al. (2000)Mortlock DP, Sateesh P and Innis JW (2000) Evolution of N-terminal sequences of the vertebrate Hoxa-13 protein Mamm Genome 11:151–158., as follows:
  1. F1, 5-CTATGACAGCCTCCGTGCTC-3;

  2. F2, 5-ATCGAGCCCACCGTCATGTTTCTCTACGAC-3;

  3. R1, 5-CGAGCTCTGTGCCGTCGCCGAGTAGGGACT-3;

  4. R2, 5-TGGTAGAAAGCAAACTCCTTG-3.

The PCR products were gel-purified using the Wizard SV Gel and PCR Clean- up System (Promega) according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Genes were cloned using the pGEM-T vector system (Promega) and E.coli -competent cells (DH5α). Three to eight clones of each species were sequenced to control for errors during PCR amplification. Sequencing was performed in both directions with the vector primers T7 and SP6 (sequence according to technical manual pGEM-T Vector System-Promega), using an ABI 3730 DNA Analyzer (Applied Biosystems).

In total, we sequenced HoxA13 from 23 species of Squamata and Lissamphibia, and downloaded 24 additional HoxA13 sequences from GenBank. All sequences obtained were aligned using ClustalW algorithm (Thompson et al., 1994Thompson JD, Higgins DG and Gibson TJ (1994) CLUSTAL W: Improving the sensitivity of progressive multiple sequence alignment through sequence weighting, position-specific gap penalties and weight matrix choice. Nucleic Acids Res 22:4673–4680.) implemented in the software BioEdit sequence alignment editor, and the alignment was manually improved based on amino acid translated sequences. The alignment was first visually inspected for indels, and no conspicuous patterns common to all three snakelike lineages were identified. In order to investigate natural selection acting on the sequence of HoxA13 exon-1 in the three snakelike lineages that represent independent limb losses, we performed molecular evolution analyses in three separate data sets (Figure 1): A) limbed lizards versus Amphisbaenia; B) limbed lizards versus Serpentes; C) limbed amphibians (anurans and salamanders) versus Gymnophiona (caecilians). Such analyses are implemented under a phylogenetic framework, so we adopted the phylogenetic hypothesis proposed by Pyron et al. (2013)Pyron RA, Burbrink FT and Wiens JJ (2013) A phylogeny and revised classification of Squamata, including 4161 species of lizards and snakes. BMC Evol Biol 13:e93. for Squamata and that proposed by Pyron and Wiens (2011)Pyron AR and Wiens JJ (2011) A large-scale phylogeny of Amphibia including over 2800 species, and a revised classification of extant frogs, salamanders, and caecilians. Mol Phylogenet Evol 61:543–583. for Lissamphibia.

Figure 1
Topology used for test models of molecular signatures of HoxA13 in limbless lineages. The models of molecular signatures of HoxA13 were tested in the three main comparisons. A) limbed lizards versus Amphisbaenia; B) limbed lizards versus Serpentes; C) limbed amphibians (anurans and salamanders) versus Gymnophiona. The tree to conduct the analyses of variable ω among lineages and sites is based on published literature (Pyron et al., 2013Pyron RA, Burbrink FT and Wiens JJ (2013) A phylogeny and revised classification of Squamata, including 4161 species of lizards and snakes. BMC Evol Biol 13:e93. for Squamata and Pyron and Wiens. 2011Pyron AR and Wiens JJ (2011) A large-scale phylogeny of Amphibia including over 2800 species, and a revised classification of extant frogs, salamanders, and caecilians. Mol Phylogenet Evol 61:543–583. for Lissamphibia). The bold branches correspond to the groups labeled as ‘foreground branches’. The shaded tree represents the one where the branch-site model identified signatures of positive selection. The values represented in each branch correspond an independent ω ratio that corresponds to ratio of the rate of non-synonymous substitutions (dN) to the rate of synonymous substitutions (dS) in a maximum likelihood framework.

In order to investigate the possible roles of relaxed or directional selections on the evolution of HoxA13 in the limbless lineages, we explored the variation in ω, the ratio of the rate of non-synonymous substitutions (dN) to the rate of synonymous substitutions (dS), in a maximum likelihood framework using the codeml program implemented in PAML (Yang, 2007Yang Z (2007) PAML 4: Phylogenetic analysis by maximum likelihood. Mol Biol Evol 24:1586–1591.). In these tests, indels were deleted, so that only portions of the alignment that were unambiguous were used for the dN/dS analyses. We conducted the “free ratio” branch model (Model 1), which assumes an independent ω ratio for each branch. Although very effective, this test is generally conservative once this approach averages substitution rates over all amino acid sites in the sequence (Bamshad and Wooding, 2003Bamshad M and Wooding SP (2003) Signatures of natural selection in the human genome. Nat Rev Genet 4:99–111.). As most amino acid sites are expected to be highly conserved and adaptive evolution most likely affects only a few sites, we also applied the branch-site model that estimates rates of evolution in a codon-by-codon basis on a specific branch of the tree. In addition, with this model we could test whether the limbless lineages share common sites under positive selection that could have evolved convergently. In that sense, models of molecular signatures representing directional selection or neutral evolution were tested in the HoxA13 of snakes, amphisbaenians and caecilians using the branch-site model A implemented in PAML (Zhang et al., 2005Zhang J, Nielsen R and Yang Z (2005) Evaluation of an improved branch-site likelihood method for detecting positive selection at the molecular level. Mol Biol Evol 22:2472–2479.; Yang, 2007Yang Z (2007) PAML 4: Phylogenetic analysis by maximum likelihood. Mol Biol Evol 24:1586–1591.). This model tests for positive selection on individual sites along a specific lineage of the tree, called foreground branch, where the other lineages are background branches. In our case, the limbless lineages were labeled as fore-ground branches as depicted on Figure 1. In this method, codon sites are categorized into four classes 0, 1, 2a, and 2b with respective proportions of p0, p1, p2a, and p2b. In site class 0, negative selection is assumed on both the foreground and background branches, with 0 < ω0 < 1. In site class 1, codons are assumed to evolve neutrally in all lineages, with ω1 = 1. In class 2a, it is assumed that positive selection operates on the foreground branch with ω2 > 1, and that negative selection operates on the background branches, with ω = ω0. Finally in class 2b, positive selection is allowed on the foreground branch with ω2 > 1, but no selection is assumed for the background branches. The corresponding null model is the same as model A, except that no selection is assumed on the foreground branch in classes 2a and 2b, and ω2 is fixed to 1. The nested models were compared using the likelihood-ratio test (LRT), and the level of significance was 0.05. If the null hypothesis is rejected, a Bayes empirical approach is used to calculate the posterior probabilities that each site has evolved under positive selection on the foreground lineage (Yang et al., 2005Yang Z, Wong WS and Nielsen R (2005) Bayes empirical Bayes inference of amino acid sites under positive selection. Mol Biol Evol 22:1107–1118.). Each branch-site model was run multiple times, with three starting ω values (0.5, 1, and 2) to check the existence of multiple local optima, as recommended.

Because the branch-site model implemented in PAML can be limiting due to the necessary specification of foreground lineages and the assumption that ω = 1 for all background lineages (Zhang et al., 2005Zhang J, Nielsen R and Yang Z (2005) Evaluation of an improved branch-site likelihood method for detecting positive selection at the molecular level. Mol Biol Evol 22:2472–2479.), we also examined HoxA13 for signatures of episodic selection using the mixed model of evolution (MEME, Murrell et al., 2012Murrell B, Wertheim JO, Moola S, Weighill T, Scheffler K and Kosakovosky Pond SL (2012) Detecting diversifying sites subject to episodic diversifying selection. PLoS Genet 8:e1002764.) and the fixed-effect likelihood (FEL) model of molecular evolution performed with HyPhy in Datamonkey server (Delport et al., 2010Delport W, Poon AFY, Frost SDW and Kosakovsky Pond SL (2010) Datamonkey 2010: A suite of phylogenetic analysis tools for evolutionary biology. Bioinformatics 26:2455–2457.). The FEL model estimates the ratio of dN/dS on a site-by-site basis, without assuming an a priori distribution across sites. The MEME model allows the distribution of the estimated ω value to vary among sites and branches, and identifies episodes of positive selection that affect only a subset of lineages.

Results

We sequenced the exon-1 of HoxA13 in a total of 23 species, being five species of Amphisbaenia, seven of Caudata, five of Gymnophiona, and six of Anura (see details in Supplementary Table S1). The database was complemented with 24 published sequences of HoxA13 downloaded from GenBank: five species of Amphisbaenia and six of limbed lizards, ten snake species, one species of Caudata, one of Gymnophiona and one of Anura (details given in Supplementary Table S1). Analyses of HoxA13 molecular evolution were implemented as follows: (1) limbed lizards versus Amphisbaenia (Figure 1A); (2) limbed lizards versus Serpentes (Figure 1B); and (3) limbed amphibians versus Gymnophiona (Figure 1C). To address the global evolutionary pressure acting on the HoxA13 gene in these lineages we obtained their ω (dN/dS) throughout the model M1 (“free model”) in the branch model. The ω values obtained for limbless lineages are much lower than the neutral rate and ranged from 0.0397 to 0.0638 (Figure 1), being equal or lower than the corresponding values of the other lineages (0.0382 to 1.526). These values indicate that HoxA13 in the limbless lineages experienced strong purifying selection, even when “released” from one important function (limb and digits formation).

To investigate whether there are sites under positive selection and to determine whether some amino acid sites could have undergone convergent contributions to developmental changes in the limbless lineages, we applied the robust branch-site model. The likelihood-ratio tests (LRTs) support the model of adaptive evolution in HoxA13 only in Serpentes, while in Amphisbaenia and in Gymnophiona the fit of the null model for neutral evolution was not significantly different than the alternative model (Table 1). The evidence for positive selection in HoxA13 detected by the branch-site model indicates that, when the stem lineage of Serpentes was labeled as foreground branch, the model estimating a class of sites with a ω value greater than 1 (model A) had a significantly better fit than the null model (Table 1). In this model, three codons were identified as being under positive selection in HoxA13 only in the Serpentes lineage: sites 46, 88 and 121 (Table 1). Models of non-neutral evolution were not supported in amphisbaenians and caecilians, as the likelihoods of a branch-site model and the null one were not statistically different in these lineages (Table 1), indicating that limb loss did not imprint consistent sequence differences onto the HoxA13 gene between limbed and limbless lineages.

Table 1
Summary of likelihood-ratio tests performed using branch-site models implemented in PALM. Log-likelihood values of different models tested using Amphisbaena, Serpentes or Gymnophiona labeled as foreground branches. LnL corresponds to the likelihood value. Sites inferred under positive selection in Serpentes had posterior probabilities values of 0.64, 0.76 and 0.51, respectively.

The absence of consistent sequence differences in HoxA13 between limbed and limbless lineages was also corroborated in the analyses performed using MEME, where we identified episodic positive selection only in codon 66 in the ancestral lineage of all snakes, and in two amphisbaenian species (A. polystegum and A. cuiabana), as shown in the Supplementary Figure S1. This codon was not the same identified in Serpentes by the branch-site model implemented in PAML; the FEL model did not identify any codon under positive selection in our dataset.

Discussion

This study investigated whether there are limb-specific sequence elements in the transcription factor protein HoxA13. We used as model system the recurrent independent evolution of limbless lineages within Tetrapoda. In this framework, identification of molecular signatures in HoxA13 that are common to independently derived limbless lineages would suggest the presence of limb-specific sequence segments in the protein, while no consistent sequence differences between limbed and limbless species suggests that all motifs involved in limb development are also committed to other developmental functions. The conceptual basis underpinning the first prediction relies on evidence that genetic elements dedicated to the development of a particular structure tend to get lost when the corresponding structure is lost in evolution (Graur and Li, 1999Graur D and Li WH (1999) Fundamentals of Molecular Evolution. 2nd edition. Sinauer Associates Inc., Sunderland.), as observed in the loss of pelvic spines in lake morphs of sticklebacks (Bell, 1987Bell MA (1987) Interacting evolutionary constraints in pelvic reduction of threespine sticklebacks, Gasterosteus aculeatus (Pisces, Gasterosteidae). Biol J Linn Soc 31:347–382.) and of penile spines in humans (Reno et al., 2013Reno PL, McLean CY, Hines JE, Capellini TD, Bejerano G and Kingsley DM (2013) A penile spine/vibrissa enhancer sequence is missing in modern and extinct humans but Is retained in multiple primates with penile spines and sensory vibrissae. PLoS One 8:e84258.). In these examples, a dedicated cis-regulatory element has been lost in evolution coincidentally with the loss of the morphological structure, suggesting the existence of sequence modules dedicated to specific developmental processes. We apply this reasoning to coding regions and investigated amino acid sequence variation in the first exon of HoxA13 to test for specific amino acid sequence motifs in transcription factor proteins that may be exclusively dedicated to certain biological roles.

Analyses of molecular evolution in the pleiotropic HoxA13 gene were applied to the evolutionary scenario of recurrent evolution of limbless tetrapod lineages, here represented by three snakelike clades (see Woltering, 2012Woltering JM (2012) From lizard to snake; behind the evolution of an extreme body plan. Curr Genomics 13:e289.): Gymnophiona (Lissamphibia), Amphisbaenia and Serpentes (Lepidosauria). We investigated the overall constraint, the site-specific evolutionary rates, and evidence of positive selection acting on HoxA13. None of our analyses revealed a signal specific to and shared by the three snakelike clades investigated. Specifically, our comparisons of evolutionary models based on likelihood-ratio tests provided low global values of ω, and the branch-site model failed to detect evidence of positive selection acting on any site along the branch leading to the Amphisbaenia and the Gymnophiona lineages, identifying three sites evolving under positive selection of HoxA13 only in snakes. From these results we conclude that the first exon of HoxA13 does not have limb-specific sequence motifs, and propose that all protein-protein interaction motifs of the HoxA13 protein necessary for limb development are also involved in the establishment of other structures. Nonetheless, we recognize that HoxA13 limb-specific motifs may actually exist although remaining unidentified under the approach used here, though unlikely given the sequence evidence presented in this study. There could still be limb-specific motifs in the C-terminal tail that is coded for by exon 2 and which is not covered by the data analyzed here.

Evolution of snakelike tetrapods involves interlocked changes in different traits: limb reduction/loss occurs simultaneously with body elongation (Gans, 1975Gans C (1975) Tetrapod limblessness: Evolution and functional corollaries. Am Zool 15:455–467.; Lande, 1978Lande R (1978) Evolutionary mechanism of limb loss in tetrapods. Evolution 32:73–92.). Two major clades represented here, Lepidosauria and Lissamphibia, differ in the evolutionary patterns of such morphological transitions. Lissamphibia has fewer independent events of snakelike evolution (three transitions in salamanders [Parra-Olea and Wake, 2011] plus the origin of Gymnophiona [Pyron and Wiens, 2011Pyron AR and Wiens JJ (2011) A large-scale phylogeny of Amphibia including over 2800 species, and a revised classification of extant frogs, salamanders, and caecilians. Mol Phylogenet Evol 61:543–583.; San Mauro et al., 2014San Mauro D, Gower DJ, Müller H, Loader SP, Zardoya R, Nussbaum RA and Wilkinson M (2014) Life-history evolution and mitogenomic phylogeny of caecilian amphibians. Mol Phylogenet Evol 73:177–189.]) when compared to Lepidosauria (at least 26 independent origins; Wiens et al., 2006Wiens JJ, Brandley MC and Reeder TW (2006) Why does a trait evolve multiple times within a clade? Repeated evolution of snakelike body form in squamate reptiles. Evolution 60:93–11). These transitions likely involved changes in genes underlying the development of the modified structures. For example, snakelike organisms exhibit an acceleration of the somitogenesis clock rhythm, a delay in the shrinkage of pre-somitic mesoderm (PSM), changes in expression domains of Hox genes, and a differential interpretation of Hox codes by downstream genes in the pre-caudal region (Cohn and Tickle, 1999Cohn M and Tickle C (1999) Developmental basis of limblessness and axial patterning in snakes. Nature 399:474–479.; Woltering et al., 2009Woltering JM, Vonk FJ, Müller H, Bardine N, Tuduce IL, de Bakker MA and Richardson MK (2009) Axial patterning in snakes and caecilians: Evidence for an alternative interpretation of the Hox code. Dev Biol 332:82–89.; Di-Poï et al., 2010Di-Poï N, Montoya-Burgos JI, Miller H, Pourquié O, Milinkovitch MC and Duboule D (2010) Changes in Hox genes’ structure and function during the evolution of the squamate body plan. Nature 464:99–103.; Woltering, 2012Woltering JM (2012) From lizard to snake; behind the evolution of an extreme body plan. Curr Genomics 13:e289.). These modifications in developmental processes culminate on increased numbers of vertebrae and the consequent body elongation, as well as a vertebral deregionalization associated with limb loss (Woltering, 2012Woltering JM (2012) From lizard to snake; behind the evolution of an extreme body plan. Curr Genomics 13:e289.; but see Head and Polly, 2015Head JJ and Polly PD (2015) Evolution of the snake body form reveals homoplasy in amniote Hox gene function. Nature 520:86–89.). Variation in expression domains of Hox genes is particularly relevant in this context because Hox proteins are essential for morphogenesis and patterning of the vertebrate skeleton during embryo development (Krumlauf, 1994Krumlauf R (1994) Hox genes in vertebrate development. Cell 78:191–201.; Pearson et al., 2005Pearson JC, Lemons D and McGinnis W (2005) Modulating Hox gene functions during animal body patterning. Nat Rev Genet 6:893–904.). The gene HoxA13 in particular is expressed in both the developing autopodia, genital tubercle mesenchyme, and the hindgut and cloacal region, the later resulting in the development of the intestine and urogenital tracts from its terminal end (Dollé et al., 1991aDollé P, Izpisua-Belmonte JC, Brown JM, Tickle C and Duboule D (1991a) HOX-4 genes and the morphogenesis of mammalian genitalia. Genes Dev 5:1767–1776.,bDollé P, Izpisúa-Belmonte JC, Boncinelli E and Duboule D (1991b) The Hox-4.8 gene is localized at the 5′ extremity of the Hox-4 complex and is expressed in the most posterior parts of the body during development. Mech Dev 36:3–13.; Warot et al., 1997Warot X, Fromental-Ramain C, Fraulob V, Chambon P and Dollé P (1997) Gene dosage-dependent effects of the Hoxa-13 and Hoxd-13 mutations on morphogenesis of the terminal parts of the digestive and urogenital tracts. Development 124:4781–479.). For our study this gene is an ideal candidate not only because it is involved in the development of traits remarkably modified in snakelike morphologies (e.g. limbs, digestive system and reproductive tract), but also because changes in HoxA13 likely encompass pleiotropy due to its involvement in different developmental processes (for pleiotropic effects of mutations in Hox see Mortlock and Innis, 1997Mortlock DP and Innis JW (1997) Mutation of HOXA13 in hand-foot-genital syndrome. Nat Genet 15:179–180.).

The absence of consistent differences between limbed and limbless species in sequence elements of the transcription factor HoxA13 favors the scenario where limb-development motifs in the protein are also committed to other developmental processes. Evidence for this interpretation is also provided by mutations of HoxA13 that are causal for the so-called hand-foot-genital syndrome (Mortlock and Innis, 1997Mortlock DP and Innis JW (1997) Mutation of HOXA13 in hand-foot-genital syndrome. Nat Genet 15:179–180.). Such pleiotropic effect of a limb gene on penile structures is explained by the likely serial homology of hind limbs and external genitalia in squamates (Tschopp et al., 2014Tschopp P, Sherratt E, Sanger TJ, Groner AC, Aspiras AC, Hu JK and Tabin CJ (2014) A relative shift in cloacal location repositions external genitalia in amniote evolution. Nature 516:391–394.). Such homology reinforces that changes in limb-related amino acids of the HoxA13 protein are likely to also affect the development of the penis, implying associated fitness costs.

The genetic and evolutionary connections between external genitalia (penis) and limbs may explain the absence of limb-specific variation in the HoxA13 amino acid sequence for at least for the two lepidosaurian clades, Serpentes and Amphisbaenia, which have limb-related penises. At this point we do not have a plausible explanation for the evidence for directional selection on the HoxA13 coding sequence in the stem lineage of snakes. It is important to note, though, that the function of Hox genes has undergone substantial reorganization in squamates and snakes in particular (Di-Poï et al., 2010Di-Poï N, Montoya-Burgos JI, Miller H, Pourquié O, Milinkovitch MC and Duboule D (2010) Changes in Hox genes’ structure and function during the evolution of the squamate body plan. Nature 464:99–103.), so there might be other structures in snakes where HoxA13 has acquired novel or modified functions. For example, a characteristic of the Serpentes lineage is the presence cloacal scent glands, a morphological trait evoked previously as a possible candidate for a new function that co-opted HoxA13 in the clade (Kohlsdorf et al., 2008Kohlsdorf T, Cummings MP, Lynch VJ, Stopper GF, Takahashi K and Wagner GP (2008) A molecular footprint of limb loss: Sequence variation of the autopodial identity gene Hoxa-13. J Mol Evol 67:581–593.). The hypothesis that HoxA13 may be involved in the development of snake-specific cloacal scent glands has been tested by our group, but no HoxA13 transcripts expressed in these rudiments have been identified using RT-PCR (results not shown). The functional significance of the positive selection detected in the HoxA13 of Serpentes remains therefore under investigation.

The explanation for the lack of a limb-loss signal in the HoxA13 amino acid sequence based on the genital-limb connection described by Tschopp et al. (2014)Tschopp P, Sherratt E, Sanger TJ, Groner AC, Aspiras AC, Hu JK and Tabin CJ (2014) A relative shift in cloacal location repositions external genitalia in amniote evolution. Nature 516:391–394. is not applicable to caecilians. These animals do universally have a male copulatory organ, the phalloidium, but this structure is an inverted cloaca and not a body appendage (Gower and Wilkinson, 2002Gower DJ and Wilkinson M (2002) Phallus morphology in caecilians (Amphibia, Gymnophiona) and its systematic utility. Bull Nat Hist Mus Zool 68:143–154.). Given that there are no obvious limb-related appendages in caecilians, one could expect a signal of limb loss in these animals. In fact, there is a substitution from isoleucine (I) to a methionine (M) at position 6 and a deletion of three amino acids (two alanines and a glutamine- AAQ) at positions 76 to 78 of the alignment that are specific to caecilians. However, it is hard to dissect functional significance from phylogenetic signal in these patterns because our dataset lacks additional snakelike and penis-less amphibians other than caecilians, a morphology represented by limbless urodeles.

In summary, we conclude that there is no evidence for limb-specific/exclusive sequence motifs in the HoxA13 amino acid sequence coded for by exon 1, at least in squamates, so that all sequence elements of this part of the protein that are necessary for limb development seem also committed to other developmental processes. We note though, that the C-terminal tail that is coded for by exon 2 is not covered by this study and, thus, we cannot exclude the presence of limb-specific motifs in this part of the HoxA13 molecule.

Supplementary Material

Table S1

List of species used in the bioinformatic analyses.

Figure S1

Results from HyPhy analyses in the Data-monkey server.

The following online material is available for this article:
  1. Table S1- List of species used in the bioinformatic analyses.

  2. Figure S1 - Results from HyPhy analyses in the Data-monkey server.

This material is available as part of the online article from http://www.scielo.br/gmb.

Acknowledgments

The authors acknowledge FAPESP for PhD fellowships awarded to MBG (2010/00447-7) and SRM (2012/13165-5), and research grants awarded to TK (FAPESP 2011/18868-1, and SISBIOTA FAPESP 2010/52316-3 with CNPq 563232/2010-2) and GPW (NSF#1353691, JTF#54860). We also thank CAPES for a PhD fellowship awarded to MES and a post-doctoral fellowship to MFN. Finally, we acknowledge curators from the collections listed in Supplementary Table 1 for donation of tissue samples used to sequence HoxA13 in the present study.

  • Associate Editor: Igor Schneider

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Publication Dates

  • Publication in this collection
    Sept 2015

History

  • Received
    09 Feb 2015
  • Accepted
    23 Apr 2015
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