BACKGROUND: The Mollusca constitute one of the most morphologically and ecologically diverse metazoan phyla, occupying a wide range of marine, terrestrial and freshwater habitats. The evolutionary success of the molluscs can in part be attributed to the evolvability of the external shell. Typically, the shell first forms during embryonic and larval development, changing dramatically in shape, colour and mineralogical composition as development and maturation proceeds. Major developmental transitions in shell morphology often correlate with ecological transitions (e.g. from a planktonic to benthic existence at metamorphosis). While the genes involved in molluscan biomineralisation are beginning to be identified, there is little understanding of how these are developmentally regulated, or if the same genes are operational at different stages of the mollusc's life. RESULTS: Here we relate the developmental expression of nine genes in the tissue responsible for shell production - the mantle - to ecological transitions that occur during the lifetime of the tropical abalone Haliotis asinina (Vetigastropoda). Four of these genes encode evolutionarily ancient proteins, while four others encode secreted proteins with little or no identity to known proteins. Another gene has been previously described from the mantle of another haliotid vetigastropod. All nine genes display dynamic spatial and temporal expression profiles within the larval shell field and juvenile mantle. CONCLUSION: These expression data reflect the regulatory complexity that underlies molluscan shell construction from larval stages to adulthood, and serves to highlight the different ecological demands placed on each stage. The use of both ancient and novel genes in all stages of shell construction also suggest that a core set of shell-making genes was provided by a shared metazoan ancestor, which has been elaborated upon to produce the range of molluscan shell types we see today.
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