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Ancestral and derived attributes of the dlx gene repertoire, cluster structure and expression patterns in an African cichlid fish

Adina J Renz1, Helen M Gunter12, Jan MF Fischer1, Huan Qiu13, Axel Meyer1 and Shigehiro Kuraku1*

Author Affiliations

1 Chair in Zoology and Evolutionary Biology, Department of Biology, University of Konstanz, Universitätsstrasse 10, 78457 Konstanz, Germany

2 Zukunftskolleg, University of Konstanz, Universitätsstrasse 10, 78457 Konstanz, Germany

3 Department of Pharmacology, Universitätsmedizin, Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Obere Zahlbacher Strasse 67, 55101 Mainz, Germany

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EvoDevo 2011, 2:1  doi:10.1186/2041-9139-2-1

Published: 4 January 2011



Cichlid fishes have undergone rapid, expansive evolutionary radiations that are manifested in the diversification of their trophic morphologies, tooth patterning and coloration. Understanding the molecular mechanisms that underlie the cichlids' unique patterns of evolution requires a thorough examination of genes that pattern the neural crest, from which these diverse phenotypes are derived. Among those genes, the homeobox-containing Dlx gene family is of particular interest since it is involved in the patterning of the brain, jaws and teeth.


In this study, we characterized the dlx genes of an African cichlid fish, Astatotilapia burtoni, to provide a baseline to later allow cross-species comparison within Cichlidae. We identified seven dlx paralogs (dlx1a, -2a, -4a, -3b, -4b, -5a and -6a), whose orthologies were validated with molecular phylogenetic trees. The intergenic regions of three dlx gene clusters (dlx1a-2a, dlx3b-4b, and dlx5a-6a) were amplified with long PCR. Intensive cross-species comparison revealed a number of conserved non-coding elements (CNEs) that are shared with other percomorph fishes. This analysis highlighted additional lineage-specific gains/losses of CNEs in different teleost fish lineages and a novel CNE that had previously not been identified. Our gene expression analyses revealed overlapping but distinct expression of dlx orthologs in the developing brain and pharyngeal arches. Notably, four of the seven A. burtoni dlx genes, dlx2a, dlx3b, dlx4a and dlx5a, were expressed in the developing pharyngeal teeth.


This comparative study of the dlx genes of A. burtoni has deepened our knowledge of the diversity of the Dlx gene family, in terms of gene repertoire, expression patterns and non-coding elements. We have identified possible cichlid lineage-specific changes, including losses of a subset of dlx expression domains in the pharyngeal teeth, which will be the targets of future functional studies.