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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Genome-wide identification and evolution of ATP-binding cassette transporters in the ciliate Tetrahymena thermophila: A case of functional divergence in a multigene family

Jie Xiong15, Lifang Feng145, Dongxia Yuan1, Chengjie Fu23* and Wei Miao1*

Author Affiliations

1 Key Laboratory of Aquatic Biodiversity and Conservation, Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Wuhan, 430072, PR China

2 State Key Laboratory of Freshwater Ecology and Biotechnology, Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Wuhan, 430072, PR China

3 Program in Systematic Biology, Evolutionary Biology Centre, Uppsala 75236, Sweden

4 College of Food Science and Biotechnology, Zhejiang Gongshang University, 149 Jiaogong Road, Hangzhou 310035, PR China

5 Graduate School of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, 100049, PR China

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2010, 10:330  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-10-330

Published: 27 October 2010



In eukaryotes, ABC transporters that utilize the energy of ATP hydrolysis to expel cellular substrates into the environment are responsible for most of the efflux from cells. Many members of the superfamily of ABC transporters have been linked with resistance to multiple drugs or toxins. Owing to their medical and toxicological importance, members of the ABC superfamily have been studied in several model organisms and warrant examination in newly sequenced genomes.


A total of 165 ABC transporter genes, constituting a highly expanded superfamily relative to its size in other eukaryotes, were identified in the macronuclear genome of the ciliate Tetrahymena thermophila. Based on ortholog comparisons, phylogenetic topologies and intron characterizations, each highly expanded ABC transporter family of T. thermophila was classified into several distinct groups, and hypotheses about their evolutionary relationships are presented. A comprehensive microarray analysis revealed divergent expression patterns among the members of the ABC transporter superfamily during different states of physiology and development. Many of the relatively recently formed duplicate pairs within individual ABC transporter families exhibit significantly different expression patterns. Further analysis showed that multiple mechanisms have led to functional divergence that is responsible for the preservation of duplicated genes.


Gene duplications have resulted in an extensive expansion of the superfamily of ABC transporters in the Tetrahymena genome, making it the largest example of its kind reported in any organism to date. Multiple independent duplications and subsequent divergence contributed to the formation of different families of ABC transporter genes. Many of the members within a gene family exhibit different expression patterns. The combination of gene duplication followed by both sequence divergence and acquisition of new patterns of expression likely plays a role in the adaptation of Tetrahymen a to its environment.