Author(s): Shari Bodofsky, Francine Koitz, and Bruce Wightman
The nuclear receptor gene family includes 18 members that are broadly conserved among multiple disparate animal phyla, indicating that they trace their evolutionary origins to the time at which animal life arose. Typical nuclear receptors contain two major domains: a DNA-binding domain and a C-terminal domain that may bind a lipophilic hormone. Many of these nuclear receptors play varied roles in animal development, including coordination of life cycle events and cellular differentiation. The well-studied genetic model systems of Drosophila, C. elegans, and mouse permit an evaluation of the extent to which nuclear receptor function in development is conserved or exapted (repurposed) over animal evolution. While there are some specific examples of conserved functions and pathways, there are many clear examples of exaptation. Overall, the evolutionary theme of exaptation appears to be favored over strict functional conservation. Despite strong conservation of DNA-binding domain sequences and activity, the nuclear receptors prove to be highly-flexible regulators of animal development.