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Evolutionary classification of ammonium, nitrate, and peptide transporters in land plants

Neil JJB von Wittgenstein1, Cuong H Le2, Barbara J Hawkins1 and Jürgen Ehlting1*

  • * Corresponding author: Jürgen Ehlting

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Forest Biology & Department of Biology, University of Victoria, PO Box 1700 STN CSC, Victoria, BC V8W 2Y2, Canada

2 Centre for Forest Biology & Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology, University of Victoria, PO Box 1700 STN CSC, Victoria, BC V8W 2Y2, Canada

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2014, 14:11  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-14-11

Published: 20 January 2014



Nitrogen uptake, reallocation within the plant, and between subcellular compartments involves ammonium, nitrate and peptide transporters. Ammonium transporters are separated into two distinct families (AMT1 and AMT2), each comprised of five members on average in angiosperms. Nitrate transporters also form two discrete families (NRT1 and NRT2), with angiosperms having four NRT2s, on average. NRT1s share an evolutionary history with peptide transporters (PTRs). The NRT1/PTR family in land plants usually has more than 50 members and contains also members with distinct activities, such as glucosinolate and abscisic acid transport.


Phylogenetic reconstructions of each family across 20 land plant species with available genome sequences were supplemented with subcellular localization and transmembrane topology predictions. This revealed that both AMT families diverged prior to the separation of bryophytes and vascular plants forming two distinct clans, designated as supergroups, each. Ten supergroups were identified for the NRT1/PTR family. It is apparent that nitrate and peptide transport within the NRT1/PTR family is polyphyletic, that is, nitrate and/or peptide transport likely evolved multiple times within land plants. The NRT2 family separated into two distinct clans early in vascular plant evolution. Subsequent duplications occurring prior to the eudicot/monocot separation led to the existence of two AMT1, six AMT2, 31 NRT1/PTR, and two NRT2 clans, designated as groups.


Phylogenetic separation of groups suggests functional divergence within the angiosperms for each family. Distinct groups within the NRT1/PTR family appear to separate peptide and nitrate transport activities as well as other activities contained within the family, for example nitrite transport. Conversely, distinct activities, such as abscisic acid and glucosinolate transport, appear to have recently evolved from nitrate transporters.

Ammonium transporter (AMT1 and AMT2); Nitrate transporter (NRT1 and NRT2); Peptide transporter (PTR); Gene family evolution