Open Access Open Badges Research article

Natural history of SLC11 genes in vertebrates: tales from the fish world

João V Neves1, Jonathan M Wilson2, Heiner Kuhl3, Richard Reinhardt3, L Filipe C Castro2 and Pedro NS Rodrigues14*

Author Affiliations

1 Iron and Innate Immunity, Instituto de Biologia Molecular e Celular (IBMC), Rua do Campo Alegre 823, 4150-180 Porto, Portugal

2 Centro Interdisciplinar de Investigação Marinha e Ambiental (CIIMAR), Rua dos Bragas 289, 4050-123 Porto, Portugal

3 Max-Planck-Institute for Molecular Genetics, Ihnestraße 63-73, 14195 Berlin, Germany

4 Instituto de Ciências Biomédicas Abel Salazar (ICBAS), Universidade do Porto, Largo Prof. Abel Salazar 2, 4099-003 Porto, Portugal

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2011, 11:106  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-11-106

Published: 18 April 2011



The SLC11A1/Nramp1 and SLC11A2/Nramp2 genes belong to the SLC11/Nramp family of transmembrane divalent metal transporters, with SLC11A1 being associated with resistance to pathogens and SLC11A2 involved in intestinal iron uptake and transferrin-bound iron transport. Both members of the SLC11 gene family have been clearly identified in tetrapods; however SLC11A1 has never been documented in teleost fish and is believed to have been lost in this lineage during early vertebrate evolution. In the present work we characterized the SLC11 genes in teleosts and evaluated if the roles attributed to mammalian SLC11 genes are assured by other fish specific SLC11 gene members.


Two different SLC11 genes were isolated in the European sea bass (Dicentrarchus. labrax), and named slc11a2-α and slc11a2-β, since both were found to be evolutionary closer to tetrapods SLC11A2, through phylogenetic analysis and comparative genomics. Induction of slc11a2-α and slc11a2-β in sea bass, upon iron modulation or exposure to Photobacterium damselae spp. piscicida, was evaluated in in vivo or in vitro experimental models. Overall, slc11a2-α was found to respond only to iron deficiency in the intestine, whereas slc11a2-β was found to respond to iron overload and bacterial infection in several tissues and also in the leukocytes.


Our data suggests that despite the absence of slc11a1, its functions have been undertaken by one of the slc11a2 duplicated paralogs in teleost fish in a case of synfunctionalization, being involved in both iron metabolism and response to bacterial infection. This study provides, to our knowledge, the first example of this type of sub-functionalization in iron metabolism genes, illustrating how conserving the various functions of the SLC11 gene family is of crucial evolutionary importance.