Open Access Research article

Evolution, expansion and expression of the Kunitz/BPTI gene family associated with long-term blood feeding in Ixodes Scapularis

Shao-Xing Dai12, Ai-Di Zhang12 and Jing-Fei Huang12*

Author Affiliations

1 School of Life Sciences, University of Science and Technology of China, Hefei, Anhui 230027, P.R. China

2 State Key Laboratory of Genetic Resources and Evolution, Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, 32, Eastern Jiaochang Road, Kunming, Yunnan 650223, P.R. China

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2012, 12:4  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-12-4

Published: 14 January 2012

Abstract

Background

Recent studies of the tick saliva transcriptome have revealed the profound role of salivary proteins in blood feeding. Kunitz/BPTI proteins are abundant in the salivary glands of ticks and perform multiple functions in blood feeding, such as inhibiting blood coagulation, regulating host blood supply and disrupting host angiogenesis. However, Kunitz/BPTI proteins in soft and hard ticks have different functions and molecular mechanisms. How these differences emerged and whether they are associated with the evolution of long-term blood feeding in hard ticks remain unknown.

Results

In this study, the evolution, expansion and expression of Kunitz/BPTI family in Ixodes scapularis were investigated. Single- and multi-domain Kunitz/BPTI proteins have similar gene structures. Single-domain proteins were classified into three groups (groups I, II and III) based on their cysteine patterns. Group I represents the ancestral branch of the Kunitz/BPTI family, and members of this group function as serine protease inhibitors. The group I domain was used as a module to create multi-domain proteins in hard ticks after the split between hard and soft ticks. However, groups II and III, which evolved from group I, are only present and expanded in the genus Ixodes. These lineage-specific expanded genes exhibit significantly higher expression during long-term blood feeding in Ixodes scapularis. Interestingly, functional site analysis suggested that group II proteins lost the ability to inhibit serine proteases and evolved a new function of modulating ion channels. Finally, evolutionary analyses revealed that the expansion and diversification of the Kunitz/BPTI family in the genus Ixodes were driven by positive selection.

Conclusions

These results suggest that the differences in the Kunitz/BPTI family between soft and hard ticks may be linked to the evolution of long-term blood feeding in hard ticks. In Ixodes, the lineage-specific expanded genes (Group II and III) lost the ancient function of inhibiting serine proteases and evolved new functions to adapt to long-term blood feeding. Therefore, these genes may play a profound role in the long-term blood feeding of hard ticks. Based our analysis, we propose that the six genes identified in our study may be candidate target genes for tick control.