Xenacoelomorpha has recently been proposed as an animal taxon that includes acoels, nemertodermatids, and xenoturbellids. Their flattened bodies are very simple and lack discrete organs. The Acoela and Nemertodermatida (which comprise Acoelomorpha) were traditionally regarded as early-diverged extant orders of the class Turbellaria of the phylum Platyhelminthes. Recent anatomical studies and molecular phylogenetic studies demonstrate that the two groups belong to the phylum Xenacoelomorpha together with Xenoturbellida. However, debate remains in regard to whether Xenacoelomorpha is monophyletic, and whether xenacoelomorphs are sisters to all other bilaterians or have close affinity to ambulacrarians. The present study addresses the first question by examining the presence or absence of diagnostic peptide sequences shared by the three taxa. Hox genes have been used to investigate the phylogenetic relationships of metazoans. It has been shown that lophotrochozoans, rotifers, and chaetognaths share diagnostic peptide sequences in the C-terminal region of the Lox5 (Hox5/6/7) homeodomain proteins, which supports the clustering of these taxa. Examination of the decoded genome of the acoel Praesagittifera naikaiensis and reported xenacoelomorph Hox genes revealed that acoels share a peptide NLK(S/T)MSQ(V/I)D, which starts immediately after the homeodomain sequence of the central Hox4/5/6. In addition, we found another diagnostic peptide, KEGKL, in the C-terminal region of the anterior Hox1, which is shared by all the three groups of xenacoelomorphs, but not other bilaterians. Furthermore, two acoels, Praesagittifera naikaiensis and Symsagittifera roscoffensis, share another peptide SG(A/P)PGM in the posterior Hox9/11/13. These results support the designation of the phylum Xenacoelomorpha, in which Acoela is a discrete group.
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Vol. 36 • No. 5