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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Positive selection at codon 38 of the human KCNE1 (= minK) gene and sporadic absence of 38Ser-coding mRNAs in Gly38Ser heterozygotes

Holger Herlyn1*, Ulrich Zechner2, Franz Oswald3, Arne Pfeufer4, Hans Zischler1 and Thomas Haaf2

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Anthropology, Johannes Gutenberg University, 55099 Mainz, Germany

2 Institute of Human Genetics, Johannes Gutenberg University, 55131 Mainz, Germany

3 Department of Internal Medicine I, University of Ulm, Robert-Koch-Str. 8, 89081 Ulm, Germany

4 Institute of Human Genetics (IHG), Technical University of Munich, Klinikum rechts der Isar, 81675 Munich, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:188  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-188

Published: 6 August 2009



KCNE1 represents the regulatory beta-subunit of the slowly activating delayed rectifier potassium channel (IKs). Variants of KCNE1 have repeatedly been linked to the long-QT syndrome (LQTS), a disorder which predisposes to deafness, ventricular tachyarrhythmia, syncope, and sudden cardiac death.


We here analyze the evolution of the common Gly38Ser variant (rs1805127), using genomic DNAs, complementary DNAs, and HEK293-expressed variants of altogether 19 mammalian species. The between species comparison reveals that the human-specific Gly38Ser polymorphism evolved under strong positive Darwinian selection, probably in adaptation to specific challenges in the fine-tuning of IKs channels. The involved amino acid exchanges (Asp > Gly, Gly > Ser) are moderately radical and do not induce apparent changes in posttranslational modification. According to population genetic analyses (HapMap phase II) a heterozygote advantage accounts for the maintenance of the Gly38Ser polymorphism in humans. On the other hand, the expression of the 38Ser allele seems to be disadvantageous under certain conditions, as suggested by the sporadic deficiency of 38Ser-coding mRNAs in heterozygote Central Europeans and the depletion of homozygotes 38Ser in the Yoruban sample.


We speculate that individual differences in genomic imprinting or genomic recoding might have contributed to conflicting results of recent association studies between Gly38Ser polymorphism and QT phenotype. The findings thus highlight the relevance of mRNA data in future association studies of genotypes and clinical disorders. To the best of our knowledge, they moreover provide first time evidence for a unique pattern; i.e. coincidence of positive Darwinian selection and polymorphism with a sporadically suppressed expression of one allele.