Molecular analysis of self / nonself recognition in the urochordate Botryllus schlosseri
Transplantation immunity based on the recognition of MHC molecules is well described in vertebrates. Vertebrates, however, do not undergo transplantation reaction naturally. The phylogenetically closest group in which transplantation reactions can occur are the Urochordata. Therefore, these animals occupy a key position for understanding the evolution of the vertebrate immune system. When screening for genes differentially expressed during allorecognition in Botryllus schlosseri, we isolated a gene coding for a type II transmembrane protein with a C type lectin binding domain and close similarity to vertebrate CD94 and NKR-P1. Here we show that the gene, BsCD94-1, is differentially regulated during allorecognition and that a subpopulation of blood cells carries the corresponding receptor on their cell surface. Southern blot analysis using DNA from individual colonies and intronless BsCD94-1 probe reveals variation between individuals at the genomic level. CD94 in vertebrates is one of the markers for natural killer (NK) cells and binds to MHC class I molecules. NK cells play a major role in recognition and elimination of allogeneic cells. Their evolutionary origin, however, remained unknown. The results presented here indicate that the elaboration of the vertebrate immune system may have its roots in an ancestral population of cells in the urochordate blood.