John F Mulley, Adam D Hargreaves, Matthew J Hegarty, R. Scott Heller, Martin T Swain
Background Understanding the evolution of the vertebrate pancreas is key to understanding its functions. The chondrichthyes (cartilaginous fish such as sharks and rays) have been suggested to possess the most ancient example of a distinct pancreas with both hormonal (endocrine) and digestive (exocrine) roles, although the lack of genetic, genomic and transcriptomic data for cartilaginous fish has hindered a more thorough understanding of the molecular-level functions of the chondrichthyan pancreas, particularly with respect to their unusual energy metabolism (where ketone bodies and amino acids are the main oxidative fuel source) and their paradoxical ability to both maintain stable blood glucose levels and tolerate extensive periods of hypoglycemia. In order to shed light on some of these processes we have carried out the first large-scale comparative transcriptomic survey of multiple cartilaginous fish tissues: the pancreas, brain and liver of the lesser spotted catshark, Scyliorhinus canicula. Results We generated a mutli-tissue assembly comprising 86,006 contigs, of which 44,794 were assigned to a particular tissue or combination of tissue based on mapping of sequencing reads. We have characterised transcripts encoding genes involved in insulin regulation, glucose sensing, transcriptional regulation, signaling and digestion, as well as many peptide hormone precursors and their receptors for the first time. Comparisons to published mammalian pancreas transcriptomes reveals that mechanisms of glucose sensing and insulin regulation used to establish and maintain a stable internal environment are conserved across jawed vertebrates and likely pre-date the vertebrate radiation. Conservation of pancreatic hormones and genes encoding digestive proteins support the single, early evolution of a distinct pancreatic gland with endocrine and exocrine functions in vertebrates, although the peptide diversity of the early vertebrate pancreas has been overestimated as a result of the use of cross-reacting antisera in earlier studies. A three hormone islet organ is therefore the basal vertebrate condition, later elaborated upon only in the tetrapod lineage. Conclusions The cartilaginous fish are a great untapped resource for the reconstruction of patterns and processes of vertebrate evolution and new approaches such as those described in this paper will greatly facilitate their incorporation into the rank of model organism.