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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Evolution of pharmacologic specificity in the pregnane X receptor

Sean Ekins123, Erica J Reschly4, Lee R Hagey5 and Matthew D Krasowski4*

Author Affiliations

1 Collaborations in Chemistry, Inc., Jenkintown, PA, USA

2 Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Maryland, Baltimore, MD, USA

3 Department of Pharmacology, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Piscataway, NJ, USA

4 Department of Pathology, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

5 Department of Medicine, University of California at San Diego, San Diego, CA, USA

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:103  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-103

Published: 2 April 2008



The pregnane X receptor (PXR) shows the highest degree of cross-species sequence diversity of any of the vertebrate nuclear hormone receptors. In this study, we determined the pharmacophores for activation of human, mouse, rat, rabbit, chicken, and zebrafish PXRs, using a common set of sixteen ligands. In addition, we compared in detail the selectivity of human and zebrafish PXRs for steroidal compounds and xenobiotics. The ligand activation properties of the Western clawed frog (Xenopus tropicalis) PXR and that of a putative vitamin D receptor (VDR)/PXR cloned in this study from the chordate invertebrate sea squirt (Ciona intestinalis) were also investigated.


Using a common set of ligands, human, mouse, and rat PXRs share structurally similar pharmacophores consisting of hydrophobic features and widely spaced excluded volumes indicative of large binding pockets. Zebrafish PXR has the most sterically constrained pharmacophore of the PXRs analyzed, suggesting a smaller ligand-binding pocket than the other PXRs. Chicken PXR possesses a symmetrical pharmacophore with four hydrophobes, a hydrogen bond acceptor, as well as excluded volumes. Comparison of human and zebrafish PXRs for a wide range of possible activators revealed that zebrafish PXR is activated by a subset of human PXR agonists. The Ciona VDR/PXR showed low sequence identity to vertebrate VDRs and PXRs in the ligand-binding domain and was preferentially activated by planar xenobiotics including 6-formylindolo-[3,2-b]carbazole. Lastly, the Western clawed frog (Xenopus tropicalis) PXR was insensitive to vitamins and steroidal compounds and was activated only by benzoates.


In contrast to other nuclear hormone receptors, PXRs show significant differences in ligand specificity across species. By pharmacophore analysis, certain PXRs share similar features such as human, mouse, and rat PXRs, suggesting overlap of function and perhaps common evolutionary forces. The Western clawed frog PXR, like that described for African clawed frog PXRs, has diverged considerably in ligand selectivity from fish, bird, and mammalian PXRs.