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Open Access Research article

Function and evolution of the serotonin-synthetic bas-1 gene and other aromatic amino acid decarboxylase genes in Caenorhabditis

Emily E Hare12 and Curtis M Loer1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Biology, University of San Diego, 5998 Alcala Park, San Diego, CA 92110, USA

2 current address: Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2004, 4:24  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-4-24

Published: 2 August 2004

Abstract

Background

Aromatic L-amino acid decarboxylase (AADC) enzymes catalyze the synthesis of biogenic amines, including the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, throughout the animal kingdom. These neurotransmitters typically perform important functions in both the nervous system and other tissues, as illustrated by the debilitating conditions that arise from their deficiency. Studying the regulation and evolution of AADC genes is therefore desirable to further our understanding of how nervous systems function and evolve.

Results

In the nematode C. elegans, the bas-1 gene is required for both serotonin and dopamine synthesis, and maps genetically near two AADC-homologous sequences. We show by transformation rescue and sequencing of mutant alleles that bas-1 encodes an AADC enzyme. Expression of a reporter construct in transgenics suggests that the bas-1 gene is expressed, as expected, in identified serotonergic and dopaminergic neurons. The bas-1 gene is one of six AADC-like sequences in the C. elegans genome, including a duplicate that is immediately downstream of the bas-1 gene. Some of the six AADC genes are quite similar to known serotonin- and dopamine-synthetic AADC's from other organisms whereas others are divergent, suggesting previously unidentified functions. In comparing the AADC genes of C. elegans with those of the congeneric C. briggsae, we find only four orthologous AADC genes in C. briggsae. Two C. elegans AADC genes – those most similar to bas-1 – are missing from C. briggsae. Phylogenetic analysis indicates that one or both of these bas-1-like genes were present in the common ancestor of C. elegans and C. briggsae, and were retained in the C. elegans line, but lost in the C. briggsae line. Further analysis of the two bas-1-like genes in C. elegans suggests that they are unlikely to encode functional enzymes, and may be expressed pseudogenes.

Conclusions

The bas-1 gene of C. elegans encodes a serotonin- and dopamine-synthetic AADC enzyme. Two C. elegans AADC-homologous genes that are closely related to bas-1 are missing from the congeneric C. briggsae; one or more these genes was present in the common ancestor of C. elegans and C. briggsae. Despite their persistence in C. elegans, evidence suggests the bas-1-like genes do not encode functional AADC proteins. The presence of the genes in C. elegans raises questions about how many 'predicted genes' in sequenced genomes are functional, and how duplicate genes are retained or lost during evolution. This is another example of unexpected retention of duplicate genes in eukaryotic genomes.