Somatic stem cells express Piwi and Vasa genes in an adult ctenophore: ancient association of "germline genes" with stemness.
Stem cells are essential for animal development and adult tissue homeostasis, and the quest for an ancestral gene fingerprint of stemness is a major challenge for evolutionary developmental biology. Recent studies have indicated that a series of genes, including the transposon silencer Piwi and the translational activator Vasa, specifically involved in germline determination and maintenance in classical bilaterian models (e.g., vertebrates, fly, nematode), are more generally expressed in adult multipotent stem cells in other animals like flatworms and hydras. Since the progeny of these multipotent stem cells includes both somatic and germinal derivatives, it remains unclear whether Vasa, Piwi, and associated genes like Bruno and PL10 were ancestrally linked to stemness, or to germinal potential. We have investigated the expression of Vasa, two Piwi paralogues, Bruno and PL10 in Pleurobrachia pileus, a member of the early-diverging phylum Ctenophora, the probable sister group of cnidarians. These genes were all expressed in the male and female germlines, and with the exception of one of the Piwi paralogues, they showed similar expression patterns within somatic territories (tentacle root, comb rows, aboral sensory complex). Cytological observations and EdU DNA-labelling and long-term retention experiments revealed concentrations of stem cells closely matching these gene expression areas. These stem cell pools are spatially restricted, and each specialised in the production of particular types of somatic cells. These data unveil important aspects of cell renewal within the ctenophore body and suggest that Piwi, Vasa, Bruno, and PL10 belong to a gene network ancestrally acting in two distinct contexts: (i) the germline and (ii) stem cells, whatever the nature of their progeny.