Genomic analysis of immunity in a Urochordate and the emergence of the vertebrate immune system: "waiting for Godot"

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Genome-wide sequence analysis in the invertebrate chordate, Ciona intestinalis, has provided a comprehensive picture of immune-related genes in an organism that occupies a key phylogenetic position in vertebrate evolution. The pivotal genes for adaptive immunity, such as the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I and II genes, T-cell receptors, or dimeric immunoglobulin molecules, have not been identified in the Ciona genome. Many genes involved in innate immunity have been identified, including complement components, Toll-like receptors, and the genes involved in intracellular signal transduction of immune responses, and show both expansion and unexpected diversity in comparison with the vertebrates. In addition, a number of genes were identified which predicted integral membrane proteins with extracellular C-type lectin or immunoglobulin domains and intracellular immunoreceptor tyrosine-based inhibitory motifs (ITIMs) and immunoreceptor tyrosine-based activation motifs (ITAMs) (plus their associated signal transduction molecules), suggesting that activating and inhibitory receptors have an MHC-independent function and an early evolutionary origin. A crucial component of vertebrate adaptive immunity is somatic diversification, and the recombination activating genes (RAG) and activation-induced cytidine deaminase (AID) genes responsible for the Generation of diversity are not present in Ciona. However, there are key V regions, the essential feature of an immunoglobulin superfamily VC1-like core, and possible proto-MHC regions scattered throughout the genome waiting for Godot.