Comparative genomics of the coconut crab and other decapod crustaceans: exploring the molecular basis of terrestrial adaptation


Abstract Background The complex life cycle of the coconut crab, Birgus latro, begins when an obligate terrestrial adult female visits the intertidal to hatch zoea larvae into the surf. After drifting for several weeks in the ocean, the post-larval glaucothoes settle in the shallow subtidal zone, undergo metamorphosis, and the early juveniles then subsequently make their way to land where they undergo further physiological changes that prevent them from ever entering the sea again. Here, we sequenced, assembled and analyzed the coconut crab genome to shed light on its adaptation to terrestrial life. For comparison, we also assembled the genomes of the long-tailed marine-living ornate spiny lobster, Panulirus ornatus, and the short-tailed marine-living red king crab, Paralithodes camtschaticus. Our selection of the latter two organisms furthermore allowed us to explore parallel evolution of the crab-like form in anomurans. Results All three assembled genomes are large, repeat-rich and AT-rich. Functional analysis reveals that the coconut crab has undergone proliferation of genes involved in the visual, respiratory, olfactory and cytoskeletal systems. Given that the coconut crab has atypical mitochondrial DNA compared to other anomurans, we argue that an abundance of kif22 and other significantly proliferated genes annotated with mitochondrial and microtubule functions, point to unique mechanisms involved in providing cellular energy via nuclear protein-coding genes supplementing mitochondrial and microtubule function. We furthermore detected in the coconut crab a significantly proliferated HOX gene, caudal, that has been associated with posterior development in Drosophila, but we could not definitively associate this gene with carcinization in the Anomura since it is also significantly proliferated in the ornate spiny lobster. However, a cuticle-associated coatomer gene, gammacop, that is significantly proliferated in the coconut crab, may play a role in hardening of the adult coconut crab abdomen in order to mitigate desiccation in terrestrial environments. Conclusion The abundance of genomic features in the three assembled genomes serve as a source of hypotheses for future studies of anomuran environmental adaptations such as shell-utilization, perception of visual and olfactory cues in terrestrial environments, and cuticle sclerotization. We hypothesize that the coconut crab exhibits gene proliferation in lieu of alternative splicing as a terrestrial adaptation mechanism and propose life-stage transcriptomic assays to test this hypothesis.

Publication Date



figshare Academic Research System



Document Type

Data Set



Embargo Date