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Open Access Research article

Chitinase family GH18: evolutionary insights from the genomic history of a diverse protein family

Jane D Funkhouser* and Nathan N Aronson

Author Affiliations

Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, College of Medicine, University of South Alabama, Mobile, Alabama 36688, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2007, 7:96  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-7-96

Published: 26 June 2007

Abstract

Background

Chitinases (EC.3.2.1.14) hydrolyze the β-1,4-linkages in chitin, an abundant N-acetyl-β-D-glucosamine polysaccharide that is a structural component of protective biological matrices such as insect exoskeletons and fungal cell walls. The glycoside hydrolase 18 (GH18) family of chitinases is an ancient gene family widely expressed in archea, prokaryotes and eukaryotes. Mammals are not known to synthesize chitin or metabolize it as a nutrient, yet the human genome encodes eight GH18 family members. Some GH18 proteins lack an essential catalytic glutamic acid and are likely to act as lectins rather than as enzymes. This study used comparative genomic analysis to address the evolutionary history of the GH18 multiprotein family, from early eukaryotes to mammals, in an effort to understand the forces that shaped the human genome content of chitinase related proteins.

Results

Gene duplication and loss according to a birth-and-death model of evolution is a feature of the evolutionary history of the GH18 family. The current human family likely originated from ancient genes present at the time of the bilaterian expansion (approx. 550 mya). The family expanded in the chitinous protostomes C. elegans and D. melanogaster, declined in early deuterostomes as chitin synthesis disappeared, and expanded again in late deuterostomes with a significant increase in gene number after the avian/mammalian split.

Conclusion

This comprehensive genomic study of animal GH18 proteins reveals three major phylogenetic groups in the family: chitobiases, chitinases/chitolectins, and stabilin-1 interacting chitolectins. Only the chitinase/chitolectin group is associated with expansion in late deuterostomes. Finding that the human GH18 gene family is closely linked to the human major histocompatibility complex paralogon on chromosome 1, together with the recent association of GH18 chitinase activity with Th2 cell inflammation, suggests that its late expansion could be related to an emerging interface of innate and adaptive immunity during early vertebrate history.