Chordates are thought to have emerged from some common ancestor of deuterostomes by organizing shared anatomical and embryological features including a notochord, a dorsal nerve cord and pharyngeal gill slits. Because the notochord is the most prominent feature of chordates and because the Brachyury (T) gene is essential for notochord formation, the T gene is a key molecular probe with which to explore the origin and evolution of chordates. We investigated whether the sea urchin (echinoderm) conserves the T gene and, if so, where the sea urchin T gene is expressed. A cDNA clone for the sea urchin T (HpTa) gene contained a long open reading frame that encodes a polypeptide of 434 amino acids. Although the overall degree of amino acid identity was not very high (52%, sea urchin/mouse), in the T domain of the N terminus the amino acid identity was 73% (sea urchin/mouse). The HpTa gene is present as a single copy per haploid genome. As with the chordate T gene, the expression of HpTa is transient, being first detected in the swimming blastula, maximally transcribed in the gastrula, decreasing at the prism larval stage and barely detectable at the pluteus larval stage. HpTa transcripts were found in the secondary mesenchyme founder cells, vegetal plate of the mesenchyme blastula, extending tip of the invaginating archenteron and, finally, the secondary mesenchyme cells at the late-gastrula stage.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 250 WORDS)

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