Effective intercellular communication is an important feature in the development of multicellular organisms. Secreted hedgehog (hh) protein is essential for both long- and short-range cellular signaling required for body pattern formation in animals. In a molecular evolutionary study, we find that the vertebrate homologs of the Drosophila hh gene arose by two gene duplications: the first gave rise to Desert hh, whereas the second produced the Indian and Sonic hh genes. Both duplications occurred before the emergence of vertebrates and probably before the evolution of chordates. The amino-terminal fragment of the hh precursor, crucial in long- and short-range intercellular communication, evolves two to four times slower than the carboxyl-terminal fragment in both Drosophila hh and its vertebrate homologues, suggesting conservation of mechanism of hh action in animals. A majority of amino acid substitutions in the amino- and carboxyl-terminal fragments are conservative, but the carboxyl-terminal domain has undergone extensive insertion-deletion events while maintaining its autocleavage protease activity. Our results point to similarity of evolutionary constraints among sites of Drosophila and vertebrate hh homologs and suggest some future directions for understanding the role of hh genes in the evolution of developmental complexity in animals.

  • Received August 30, 1995.
  • Accepted November 21, 1995.