Comparative Genomics and Transcriptomics in Placozoa
We have been sequencing and are currently analyzing several genomes and transcriptomes of placozoan species. We expect valuable insights into the phylogeny, genetic diversity and mechanisms of selection of an entire phylum. Placozoa have become an emerging model system for evo-devo research because of their simple bauplan and a basal position in the tree of life. We propose that placozoans are also well suited to become a model phylum in marine comparative genomics and ocean climate studies because: 1. they are abundant throughout the oceans in benthic communities 2. different lineages differ in their geographical distribution and associated tolerance for environmental factors 3. their compact genome is comparatively time and cost efficiently to sequence 4. assumed passive dispersal along oceanic currents allows to study effects of migration and local adaptation.
Placozoan genome or transcriptome sequencing projects in our group projected onto a 16S phylogenetic tree: A finished sequencing project of a placozoan 16S haplotype is marked with a green star. A sequencing project in progress is indicated by a yellow star. The coloration of the placozoan clades follows that of Eitel et al., 2013.
The Enigmatic Phylum Placozoa
The first placozoan species, Trichoplax adhaerens, was discovered by F.E. Schulze in 1883  in aquarium samples. More members (species, yet undescribed) of this phylum have been found in shallow tropical, sub-tropical and temperate waters [2,3]. They are irregular disc-shaped benthic animals of only a few millimeters which crawl over hard substrates. Placozoans exhibit the simplest morphology of all living metazoans, harboring only six somatic cell types [4,5] that are arranged in an upper epithelium, a lower epithelium and an intermediate layer (for review see ). This simple bauplan and a supposed basal position of placozoans in the tree of life has led to many speculations regarding the origin of Metazoa . Consequently the Trichoplax mitochondrial  and nuclear  genomes have been among the first sequenced non-bilaterian genomes and support the phylum's basal position .
(A) Schematic cross section of a placozoan. Placozoans possess two epithelia, a lower epithelium (le) facing the substrate and an upper epithelium (ue) facing the water. In between lie several layers of syncytial fiber cells (fc). Marginal cells (mc) are thought to represent pluripotent stem cells. The “shiny spheres” (ss) are lipid filled droplets in the upper epithelium probably used as a chemical defense mechanism (from Eitel et al., 2013). (B) Live placozoan on a rock grazing on algae. (C) Placozoan on a microscope slide.
A Case to Sequence the Phylum Placozoa
The fact that T. adhaerens has remained the only described species can mainly be attributed to the uniform morphology of the phylum and to the difficulty of observing placozoans in the field. This view changed when genetic studies by Voigt et al. and Eitel et al. [3,11,12] revealed substantial diversity within the phylum. Moreover, different lineages show remarkable differences in their geographical range and tolerance for environmental factors. For example, the cosmopolitan haplotype H2 has been found in tropical to temperate waters in all oceans, while the haplotype H3 seems to be restricted to the Caribbean. Currently the Placozoa consists of around 25 lineages, presently defined by their 16S haplotypes [3,12]. While their genetic distances as well as physiological differences leave no doubt that they represent valid species, attempts for species descriptions have only been partially successful, again, mainly due to the simple morphology of placozoans .
To resolve the tabula rasa Placozoa and to assess the phylum’s genetic diversity, the genomes and transcriptomes of the major lineages are currently sequenced, a process which is greatly facilitated by the small (100Mb) genome size of placozoans. In the future we plan to establish a genotyping-by-sequencing approach  to study global population dynamics of placozoans.
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 Pearse VB, Voigt O. Field biology of placozoans (Trichoplax): distribution, diversity, biotic interactions. Integr Comp Biol 2007;47:677–92. doi:10.1093/icb/icm015.
 Eitel M, Osigus H-J, DeSalle R, Schierwater B. Global Diversity of the Placozoa. PLoS One 2013;8:e57131. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0057131.
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 Dellaporta SL, Xu A, Sagasser S, Jakob W, Moreno M a, Buss LW, et al. Mitochondrial genome of Trichoplax adhaerens supports placozoa as the basal lower metazoan phylum. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2006;103:8751–6. doi:10.1073/pnas.0602076103.
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 Guidi L, Eitel M, Cesarini E, Schierwater B, Balsamo M. Ultrastructural analyses support different morphological lineages in the phylum placozoa Grell, 1971. J Morphol 2011;272:371–8. doi:10.1002/jmor.10922.
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- Cnidarian EvoDevo research
Our second focus in diploblast research is on the evolution and development of cnidarians, because, like placozoans, they represent a key transition in animal complexity - from a sac-like bauplan with an oral-aboral axis and only two germ layers to the oral-aboral axis and three germ layers in triploblasts. Our model system is the hydrozoan Eleutheria dichotoma which was the first cnidarian representative in which Hox-like genes were identified [1,2]. Subsequent research on Eleutheria homeobox genes gave valuable insights about the evolution of the hox system and the developmental role of homeobox genes in cnidaria [3–5]. In the future we plan to sequence the estimated 500 Mb genome of Eleutheria dichotoma because it would ideally complement the cnidarian genomes already sequenced or planned to sequence: Eleutheria not only represents a typical cnidarian in having both polyp and medusa life cycle stages, but it also has some distinguishing features like internal fertilization, a brood pouch where planula develop, a crawling medusa and the possession of ocelli.
(A1) Eleutheria dichotoma polyp (A2) Polyp budding a medusa at its base (B) Medusa of Eleutheria with bifurcated tentacles: lower (walking) branch with adhesive disk, upper branch with cnidocyst knob (C) Expression pattern of the Hox-like gene Cnox-3 around the manubrium of the medusa (C from Kamm et al., 2006).
In collaboration with Professor David Miller from the James Cook University, Townsville, Australia, we are also interested in the developmental signaling pathway of fibroblast growth factors in Cnidaria. In animals the FGF and FGF-related signaling pathway is important for cell-cell communication during development and it is now clear that these important genes emerged early during metazoan evolution . Recent findings about FGF signalling in Nematostella vectensis  and Hydra vulgaris  gave first clues about the evolution and function of FGF genes in cnidarians. While Hydra represents a highly diverged hydrozoan representative, molecular and functional data from Eleutheria and other cnidarians will certainly improve our knowledge about the FGF signaling pathway in early metazoan evolution.
 Schierwater B, Murtha M, Dick M, Ruddle FH, Buss LW. Homeoboxes in cnidarians. J Exp Zool 1991;260:413–6. doi:10.1002/jez.1402600316.
 Kuhn K, Streit B, Schierwater B. Homeobox Genes in the CnidarianEleutheria dichotoma:Evolutionary Implications for the Origin ofAntennapedia-Class (HOM/Hox) Genes. Mol Phylogenet Evol 1996;6:30–8. doi:10.1006/mpev.1996.0055.
 Kamm K, Schierwater B, Jakob W, Dellaporta SL, Miller DJ. Axial patterning and diversification in the cnidaria predate the Hox system. Curr Biol 2006;16:920–6. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2006.03.036.
 Jakob W, Schierwater B. Changing hydrozoan bauplans by silencing Hox-like genes. PLoS One 2007;2:e694. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000694.
 Kamm K, Schierwater B. Ancient linkage of a POU class 6 and an anterior hox-like gene in cnidaria: implications for the evolution of homeobox genes. J Exp Zool Part B Mol Dev Evol 2007;308B:777–84. doi:10.1002/jez.b.21196.
 Bertrand S, Iwema T, Escriva H. FGF signaling emerged concomitantly with the origin of Eumetazoans. Mol Biol Evol 2014;31:310–8. doi:10.1093/molbev/mst222.
 Rentzsch F, Fritzenwanker JH, Scholz CB, Technau U. FGF signalling controls formation of the apical sensory organ in the cnidarian Nematostella vectensis. Development 2008;135:1761–9. doi:10.1242/dev.020784.
 Lange E, Bertrand S, Holz O, Rebscher N, Hassel M. Dynamic expression of a Hydra FGF at boundaries and termini. Dev Genes Evol 2014;224:235–44. doi:10.1007/s00427-014-0480-1.
The tumor suppressor p53 plays a crucial role in apoptosis and cell cycle regulation and ensures a cell’s integrity [1, 2]. Endogenous p53 levels are regulated by the ubiquitin ligase Mdm2 . Both p53 and Mdm2 have been shown to be conserved throughout the animal kingdom and orthologs of both genes have been found in the simplest animal, Trichoplax adhaerens [4, 5, 6]. Our first studies have shown that the interplay is crucial for the animals’ health and chemical interruption of the p53/Mdm2 interaction leads to abnormal phenotypes.
Artificially induced cancer and tumor-like growth in Trichoplax adhaerens.
We also seek to better understand the interplay between Myc and Max in Trichoplax. Myc is a proto-oncogene and its malfunction leads to an enhanced formation of tumors [7, 8] As a transcription factor belonging to a family of bHLH-Zip proteins, Myc interacts with Max and several other proteins to activate or repress downstream target genes [9, 10]. Myc and Max are conserved within the Metazoa [11, 12] and are of fundamental importance for cellular processes. Within the diploblasts, research on these transcription factors has mainly been conducted on the freshwater polyp Hydra [13, 14]. To elucidate their functions we use functional genetics combined with biochemical and biophysical approaches.
Alpha tubulin and DAPI staining in Trichoplax adhaerens.
The bar marks 50 µm.
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