, Volume 222, Issue 1, pp 29-44
Date: 23 Feb 2012

The medicinal leech genome encodes 21 innexin genes: different combinations are expressed by identified central neurons

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Gap junctional proteins are important components of signaling pathways required for the development and ongoing functions of all animal tissues, particularly the nervous system, where they function in the intracellular and extracellular exchange of small signaling factors and ions. In animals whose genomes have been sufficiently sequenced, large families of these proteins, connexins, pannexins, and innexins, have been found, with 25 innexins in the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans Starich et al. (Cell Commun Adhes 8: 311–314, 2001) and at least 37 connexins in the zebrafish Danio rerio Cruciani and Mikalsen (Biol Chem 388:253–264, 2009). Having recently sequenced the medicinal leech Hirudo verbana genome, we now report the presence of 21 innexin genes in this species, nine more than we had previously reported from the analysis of an EST-derived transcriptomic database Dykes and Macagno (Dev Genes Evol 216: 185–97, 2006); Macagno et al. (BMC Genomics 25:407, 2010). Gene structure analyses show that, depending on the leech innexin gene, they can contain from 0 to 6 introns, with closely related paralogs showing the same number of introns. Phylogenetic trees comparing Hirudo to another distantly related leech species, Helobdella robusta, shows a high degree of orthology, whereas comparison to other annelids shows a relatively low level. Comparisons with other Lophotrochozoans, Ecdyzozoans and with vertebrate pannexins suggest a low number (one to two) of ancestral innexin/pannexins at the protostome/deuterostome split. Whole-mount in situ hybridization for individual genes in early embryos shows that ∼50% of the expressed innexins are detectable in multiple tissues. Expression analyses using quantitative PCR show that ∼70% of the Hirudo innexins are expressed in the nervous system, with most of these detected in early development. Finally, quantitative PCR analysis of several identified adult neurons detects the presence of different combinations of innexin genes, a property that may underlie the participation of these neurons in different adult coupling circuits.

Communicated by D. Weisblat
Brandon Kandarian, Jasmine Sethi, and Allan Wu contributed equally to this work and should be considered as the first coauthors.