12 February 2018
The epidermis of amniotes forms a protective barrier against the environment and the differentiation program of keratinocytes, the main cell type in the epidermis, has undergone specific alterations in the course of adaptation of amniotes to a broad variety of environments and lifestyles. The epidermal differentiation complex (EDC) is a cluster of genes expressed at late stages of keratinocyte differentiation in both sauropsids and mammals. In the present study, we identified and analyzed the crocodilian equivalent of the EDC. The gene complement of the EDC of both the American alligator and the saltwater crocodile were determined by comparative genomics, de novo gene prediction and identification of EDC transcripts in published transcriptome data. We found that crocodilians have an organization of the EDC similar to that of their closest living relatives, the birds, with which they form the clade Archosauria. Notable differences include the specific expansion of a subfamily of EDC genes in crocodilians and the loss of distinct ancestral EDC genes in birds. Identification and comparative analysis of crocodilian orthologs of avian feather proteins suggest that the latter evolved by cooption and sequence modification of ancestral EDC genes, and that the amplification of an internal highly cysteine-enriched amino acid sequence motif gave rise to the feather component epidermal differentiation cysteine-rich protein in the avian lineage. Thus, sequence diversification of EDC genes contributed to the evolutionary divergence of the crocodilian and avian integuments.