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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Phylogenetic analyses suggest multiple changes of substrate specificity within the Glycosyl hydrolase 20 family

Jari Intra*, Giulio Pavesi and David S Horner

Author Affiliations

Dipartimento di Scienze Biomolecolari e Biotecnologie, Università di Milano, Via Celoria 26, 20133 Milano, Italy

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:214  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-214

Published: 22 July 2008



Beta-N-acetylhexosaminidases belonging to the glycosyl hydrolase 20 (GH20) family are involved in the removal of terminal β-glycosidacally linked N-acetylhexosamine residues. These enzymes, widely distributed in microorganisms, animals and plants, are involved in many important physiological and pathological processes, such as cell structural integrity, energy storage, pathogen defence, viral penetration, cellular signalling, fertilization, development of carcinomas, inflammatory events and lysosomal storage diseases. Nevertheless, only limited analyses of phylogenetic relationships between GH20 genes have been performed until now.


Careful phylogenetic analyses of 233 inferred protein sequences from eukaryotes and prokaryotes reveal a complex history for the GH20 family. In bacteria, multiple gene duplications and lineage specific gene loss (and/or horizontal gene transfer) are required to explain the observed taxonomic distribution. The last common ancestor of extant eukaryotes is likely to have possessed at least one GH20 family member. At least one gene duplication before the divergence of animals, plants and fungi as well as other lineage specific duplication events have given rise to multiple paralogous subfamilies in eukaryotes. Phylogenetic analyses also suggest that a second, divergent subfamily of GH20 family genes present in animals derive from an independent prokaryotic source. Our data suggest multiple convergent changes of functional roles of GH20 family members in eukaryotes.


This study represents the first detailed evolutionary analysis of the glycosyl hydrolase GH20 family. Mapping of data concerning physiological function of GH20 family members onto the phylogenetic tree reveals that apparently convergent and highly lineage specific changes in substrate specificity have occurred in multiple GH20 subfamilies.