Abstract Background The ancestral arthropod is believed to have had a clustered arrangement of ten Hox genes. Within arthropods, Hox gene mutations result in transformation of segment identities. Despite the fact that variation in segment number/character was common in the diversification of arthropods, few examples of Hox gene gains/losses have been correlated with morphological evolution. Furthermore, a full appreciation of the variation in the genomic arrangement of Hox genes in extant arthropods has not been recognized, as genome sequences from each major arthropod clade have not been reported until recently. Initial genomic analysis of the chelicerate Tetranychus urticae suggested that loss of Hox genes and Hox gene clustering might be more common than previously assumed. To further characterize the genomic evolution of arthropod Hox genes, we compared the genomic arrangement and general characteristics of Hox genes from representative taxa from each arthropod subphylum. Results In agreement with others, we find arthropods generally contain ten Hox genes arranged in a common orientation in the genome, with an increasing number of sampled species missing either Hox3 or abdominal-A orthologs. The genomic clustering of Hox genes in species we surveyed varies significantly, ranging from 0.3 to 13.6Â Mb. In all species sampled, arthropod Hox genes are dispersed in the genome relative to the vertebrate Mus musculus. Differences in Hox cluster size arise from variation in the number of intervening genes, intergenic spacing, and the size of introns and UTRs. In the arthropods surveyed, Hox gene duplications are rare and four microRNAs are, in general, conserved in similar genomic positions relative to the Hox genes. Conclusions The tightly clustered Hox complexes found in the vertebrates are not evident within arthropods, and differential patterns of Hox gene dispersion are found throughout the arthropods. The comparative genomic data continue to support an ancestral arthropod Hox cluster of ten genes with a shared orientation, with four Hox gene-associated miRNAs, although the degree of dispersion between genes in an ancestral cluster remains uncertain. Hox3 and abdominal-A orthologs have been lost in multiple, independent lineages, and current data support a model in which inversions of the Abdominal-B locus that result in the loss of abdominal-A correlate with reduced trunk segmentation.
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