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Concept: Cnidaria


The Myxozoa comprise over 2,000 species of microscopic obligate parasites that use both invertebrate and vertebrate hosts as part of their life cycle. Although the evolutionary origin of myxozoans has been elusive, a close relationship with cnidarians, a group that includes corals, sea anemones, jellyfish, and hydroids, is supported by some phylogenetic studies and the observation that the distinctive myxozoan structure, the polar capsule, is remarkably similar to the stinging structures (nematocysts) in cnidarians. To gain insight into the extreme evolutionary transition from a free-living cnidarian to a microscopic endoparasite, we analyzed genomic and transcriptomic assemblies from two distantly related myxozoan species, Kudoa iwatai and Myxobolus cerebralis, and compared these to the transcriptome and genome of the less reduced cnidarian parasite, Polypodium hydriforme. A phylogenomic analysis, using for the first time to our knowledge, a taxonomic sampling that represents the breadth of myxozoan diversity, including four newly generated myxozoan assemblies, confirms that myxozoans are cnidarians and are a sister taxon to P. hydriforme. Estimations of genome size reveal that myxozoans have one of the smallest reported animal genomes. Gene enrichment analyses show depletion of expressed genes in categories related to development, cell differentiation, and cell-cell communication. In addition, a search for candidate genes indicates that myxozoans lack key elements of signaling pathways and transcriptional factors important for multicellular development. Our results suggest that the degeneration of the myxozoan body plan from a free-living cnidarian to a microscopic parasitic cnidarian was accompanied by extreme reduction in genome size and gene content.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genetics, Gene expression, Genome, Animal, Cnidaria, Myxozoa


Chironex fleckeri (Australian box jellyfish) stings can cause acute cardiovascular collapse and death. We developed methods to recover venom with high specific activity, and evaluated the effects of both total venom and constituent porins at doses equivalent to lethal envenomation. Marked potassium release occurred within 5 min and hemolysis within 20 min in human red blood cells (RBC) exposed to venom or purified venom porin. Electron microscopy revealed abundant ∼12-nm transmembrane pores in RBC exposed to purified venom porins. C57BL/6 mice injected with venom showed rapid decline in ejection fraction with progression to electromechanical dissociation and electrocardiographic findings consistent with acute hyperkalemia. Recognizing that porin assembly can be inhibited by zinc, we found that zinc gluconate inhibited potassium efflux from RBC exposed to total venom or purified porin, and prolonged survival time in mice following venom injection. These findings suggest that hyperkalemia is the critical event following Chironex fleckeri envenomation and that rapid administration of zinc could be life saving in human sting victims.

Concepts: Blood, Red blood cell, Cnidaria, Potassium chloride, Box jellyfish, Chironex fleckeri, Cubozoa, Chirodropidae


BACKGROUND: Calcium-activated photoproteins are luciferase variants found in photocyte cells of bioluminescent jellyfish (Phylum Cnidaria) and comb jellies (Phylum Ctenophora). The complete genomic sequence from the ctenophore Mnemiopsis leidyi, a representative of the earliest branch of animals that emit light, provided an opportunity to examine the genome of an organism that uses this class of luciferase for bioluminescence and to look for genes involved in light reception. To determine when photoprotein genes first arose, we examined the genomic sequence from other early-branching taxa. We combined our genomic survey with gene trees, developmental expression patterns, and functional protein assays of photoproteins and opsins to provide a comprehensive view of light production and light reception in Mnemiopsis. RESULTS: The Mnemiopsis genome has 10 full-length photoprotein genes situated within two genomic clusters with high sequence conservation that are maintained due to strong purifying selection and concerted evolution. Photoprotein-like genes were also identified in the genomes of the non-luminescent sponge Amphimedon queenslandica and the non-luminescent cnidarian Nematostella vectensis, and phylogenomic analysis demonstrated that photoprotein genes arose at the base of all animals. Photoprotein gene expression in Mnemiopsis embryos begins during gastrulation in migrating precursors to photocytes and persists throughout development in the canals where photocytes reside. We identified three putative opsin genes in the Mnemiopsis genome and show that they do not group with well-known bilaterian opsin subfamilies. Interestingly, photoprotein transcripts are co-expressed with two of the putative opsins in developing photocytes. Opsin expression is also seen in the apical sensory organ. We present evidence that one opsin functions as a photopigment in vitro, absorbing light at wavelengths that overlap with peak photoprotein light emission, raising the hypothesis that light production and light reception may be functionally connected in ctenophore photocytes. We also present genomic evidence of a complete ciliary phototransduction cascade in Mnemiopsis. CONCLUSIONS: This study elucidates the genomic organization, evolutionary history, and developmental expression of photoprotein and opsin genes in the ctenophore Mnemiopsis leidyi, introduces a novel dual role for ctenophore photocytes in both bioluminescence and phototransduction, and raises the possibility that light production and light reception are linked in this early-branching non-bilaterian animal.

Concepts: Gene, Genetics, Bacteria, Organism, Animal, Cnidaria, Ctenophora, Sponge


Tropical corals live close to their upper thermal limit making them vulnerable to unusually warm summer sea temperatures. The resulting thermal stress can lead to breakdown of the coral-algal symbiosis, essential for the functioning of reefs, and cause coral bleaching. Mass coral bleaching is a modern phenomenon associated with increases in reef temperatures due to recent global warming. Widespread bleaching has typically occurred during El Niño events. We examine the historical level of stress for 100 coral reef locations with robust bleaching histories. The level of thermal stress (based on a degree heating month index, DHMI) at these locations during the 2015-2016 El Niño was unprecedented over the period 1871-2017 and exceeded that of the strong 1997-1998 El Niño. The DHMI was also 5 times the level of thermal stress associated with the ‘pre-industrial’, 1877-1878, El Niño. Coral reefs have, therefore, already shown their vulnerability to the modest (~0.92 °C) global warming that has occurred to date. Estimates of future levels of thermal stress suggest that even the optimistic 1.5 °C Paris Agreement target is insufficient to prevent more frequent mass bleaching events for the world’s reefs. Effectively, reefs of the future will not be the same as those of the past.

Concepts: Algae, Coral, Coral reef, Scleractinia, Coral bleaching, Cnidaria, Coral reefs, Brain coral


BACKGROUND: Cnidaria (corals, sea anemones, hydroids, jellyfish) is a phylum of relatively simple aquatic animals characterized by the presence of the cnidocyst: a cell containing a giant capsular organelle with an eversible tubule (cnida). Species within Cnidaria have life cycles that involve one or both of the two distinct body forms, a typically benthic polyp, which may or may not be colonial, and a typically pelagic mostly solitary medusa. The currently accepted taxonomic scheme subdivides Cnidaria into two main assemblages: Anthozoa (Hexacorallia + Octocorallia) – cnidarians with a reproductive polyp and the absence of a medusa stage – and Medusozoa (Cubozoa, Hydrozoa, Scyphozoa, Staurozoa) – cnidarians that usually possess a reproductive medusa stage. Hypothesized relationships among these taxa greatly impact interpretations of cnidarian character evolution. RESULTS: We expanded the sampling of cnidarian mitochondrial genomes, particularly from Medusozoa, to reevaluate phylogenetic relationships within Cnidaria. Our phylogenetic analyses based on a mitochogenomic dataset support many prior hypotheses, including monophyly of Hexacorallia, Octocorallia, Medusozoa, Cubozoa, Staurozoa, Hydrozoa, Carybdeida, Chirodropida, and Hydroidolina, but reject the monophyly of Anthozoa, indicating that the Octocorallia + Medusozoa relationship is not the result of sampling bias, as proposed earlier. Further, our analyses contradict Scyphozoa [Discomedusae + Coronatae], Acraspeda [Cubozoa + Scyphozoa], as well as the hypothesis that Staurozoa is the sister group to all the other medusozoans. CONCLUSIONS: Cnidarian mitochondrial genomic data contain phylogenetic signal informative for understanding the evolutionary history of this phylum. Mitogenome-based phylogenies, which reject the monophyly of Anthozoa, provide further evidence for the polyp-first hypothesis. By rejecting the traditional Acraspeda and Scyphozoa hypotheses, these analyses suggest that the shared morphological characters in these groups are plesiomorphies, originated in the branch leading to Medusozoa. The expansion of mitogenomic data along with improvements in phylogenetic inference methods and use of additional nuclear markers will further enhance our understanding of the phylogenetic relationships and character evolution within Cnidaria.

Concepts: Coral, Cnidaria, Jellyfish, Anthozoa, Polyp, Hydrozoa, Sea anemone, Medusa


The use of molecular data for species delimitation in Anthozoa is still a very delicate issue. This is probably due to the low genetic variation found among the molecular markers (primarily mitochondrial) commonly used for Anthozoa. Ceriantharia is an anthozoan group that has not been tested for genetic divergence at the species level. Recently, all three Atlantic species described for the genus Isarachnanthus of Atlantic Ocean, were deemed synonyms based on morphological simmilarities of only one species: Isarachnanthus maderensis. Here, we aimed to verify whether genetic relationships (using COI, 16S, ITS1 and ITS2 molecular markers) confirmed morphological affinities among members of Isarachnanthus from different regions across the Atlantic Ocean. Results from four DNA markers were completely congruent and revealed that two different species exist in the Atlantic Ocean. The low identification success and substantial overlap between intra and interspecific COI distances render the Anthozoa unsuitable for DNA barcoding, which is not true for Ceriantharia. In addition, genetic divergence within and between Ceriantharia species is more similar to that found in Medusozoa (Hydrozoa and Scyphozoa) than Anthozoa and Porifera that have divergence rates similar to typical metazoans. The two genetic species could also be separated based on micromorphological characteristics of their cnidomes. Using a specimen of Isarachnanthus bandanensis from Pacific Ocean as an outgroup, it was possible to estimate the minimum date of divergence between the clades. The cladogenesis event that formed the species of the Atlantic Ocean is estimated to have occured around 8.5 million years ago (Miocene) and several possible speciation scenarios are discussed.

Concepts: DNA, Evolution, Species, Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Cnidaria, Ocean, Sea anemone


Structural change in both the habitat and reef-associated fish assemblages within spatially managed coral reefs can provide key insights into the benefits and limitations of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). While MPA zoning effects on particular target species are well reported, we are yet to fully resolve the various affects of spatial management on the structure of coral reef communities over decadal time scales. Here, we document mixed affects of MPA zoning on fish density, biomass and species richness over the 21 years since establishment of the Saba Marine Park (SMP). Although we found significantly greater biomass and species richness of reef-associated fishes within shallow habitats (5 meters depth) closed to fishing, this did not hold for deeper (15 m) habitats, and there was a widespread decline (38% decrease) in live hard coral cover and a 68% loss of carnivorous reef fishes across all zones of the SMP from the 1990s to 2008. Given the importance of live coral for the maintenance and replenishment of reef fishes, and the likely role of chronic disturbance in driving coral decline across the region, we explore how local spatial management can help protect coral reef ecosystems within the context of large-scale environmental pressures and disturbances outside the purview of local MPA management.

Concepts: Algae, Fish, Coral, Coral reef, Scleractinia, Cnidaria, Marine Protected Area, Protected area


Biofilms play an important role as a settlement cue for invertebrate larvae and significantly contribute to the nutrient turnover in aquatic ecosystems. Nevertheless, little is known about how biofilm community structure generally responds to environmental changes. This study aimed to identify patterns of bacterial dynamics in coral reef biofilms in response to associated macrofouling community structure, microhabitat (exposed vs. sheltered), seasonality, and eutrophication. Settlement tiles were deployed at four reefs along a cross-shelf eutrophication gradient and were exchanged every 4 months over 20 months. The fouling community composition on the tiles was recorded and the bacterial community structure was assessed with the community fingerprinting technique Automated Ribosomal Intergenic Spacer Analysis (ARISA). Bacterial operational taxonomic unit (OTU) number was higher on exposed tiles, where the fouling community was homogenous and algae-dominated, than in sheltered habitats, which were occupied by a variety of filter feeders. Furthermore, OTU number was also highest in eutrophied near-shore reefs, while seasonal variations in community structure were most pronounced in the oligotrophic mid-shelf reef. In contrast, the macrofouling community structure did not change significantly with seasons. Changes in bacterial community patterns were mostly affected by microhabitat, seasonal and anthropogenically derived changes in nutrient availability, and to a lesser extent by changes in the macrofouling community structure. Path analysis revealed a complex interplay of various environmental and biological factors explaining the spatial and temporal variations in bacterial biofilm communities under natural conditions.

Concepts: DNA, Bacteria, Coral reef, Ecosystem, Biofilm, Cnidaria, Aquatic ecology, Ecosystems


The nematocyst is one of the most complex intracellular structures found in nature and is the defining feature of the phylum Cnidaria (sea anemones, corals, jellyfish, and hydroids). This miniature stinging organelle contains and delivers venom into prey and foe yet little is known about its toxic components. In the present study, we identified by tandem mass spectrometry 20 proteins released upon discharge from the nematocyst of the model sea anemone Nematostella vectensis. The availability of genomic and transcriptomic data for this species enabled accurate identification and phylogenetic study of these components. Fourteen of these proteins could not be identified in other animals suggesting that they might be the products of taxonomically restricted genes, a finding which fits well their origin from a taxon-specific organelle. Further, we studied by in situ hybridization the localization of two of the transcripts encoding the putative nematocyst venom proteins: a metallopeptidase related to the Tolloid family and a cysteine-rich protein. Both transcripts were detected in nematocytes, which are the cells containing nematocysts, and the metallopeptidase was found also in pharyngeal gland cells. Our findings reveal for the first time the possible venom components of a sea anemone nematocyst and suggest their evolutionary origins.

Concepts: Gene, Animal, Coral, Cnidaria, Jellyfish, Anthozoa, Sea anemone, Cnidocyte


The great majority of metazoans belong to bilaterian phyla. They diversified during a short interval in Earth’s history known as the Cambrian explosion, ∼540 million years ago. However, the genetic basis of these events is poorly understood. Here we argue that the vertebrate genome organizer CTCF (CCCTC-binding factor) played an important role for the evolution of bilaterian animals. We provide evidence that the CTCF protein and a genome-wide abundance of CTCF-specific binding motifs are unique to bilaterian phyla, but absent in other eukaryotes. We demonstrate that CTCF-binding sites within vertebrate and Drosophila Hox gene clusters have been maintained for several hundred million years, suggesting an ancient origin of the previously known interaction between Hox gene regulation and CTCF. In addition, a close correlation between the presence of CTCF and Hox gene clusters throughout the animal kingdom suggests conservation of the Hox-CTCF link across the Bilateria. On the basis of these findings, we propose the existence of a Hox-CTCF kernel as principal organizer of bilaterian body plans. Such a kernel could explain (i) the formation of Hox clusters in Bilateria, (ii) the diversity of bilaterian body plans, and (iii) the uniqueness and time of onset of the Cambrian explosion.

Concepts: DNA, Gene expression, Evolution, Organism, Animal, Chordate, Cnidaria, Cambrian explosion