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FoxO gene family evolution in vertebrates

Minghui Wang12, Xiangzhe Zhang1, Hongbo Zhao1, Qishan Wang1* and Yuchun Pan12*

Author Affiliations

1 School of Agriculture and Biology, Department of Animal Sciences, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Shanghai, 200240, PR China

2 Shanghai Key Laboratory of Veterinary Biotechnology, Shanghai 200240, PR China

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:222  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-222

Published: 7 September 2009



Forkhead box, class O (FoxO) belongs to the large family of forkhead transcription factors that are characterized by a conserved forkhead box DNA-binding domain. To date, the FoxO group has four mammalian members: FoxO1, FoxO3a, FoxO4 and FoxO6, which are orthologs of DAF16, an insulin-responsive transcription factor involved in regulating longevity of worms and flies. The degree of homology between these four members is high, especially in the forkhead domain, which contains the DNA-binding interface. Yet, mouse FoxO knockouts have revealed that each FoxO gene has its unique role in the physiological process. Whether the functional divergences are primarily due to adaptive selection pressure or relaxed selective constraint remains an open question. As such, this study aims to address the evolutionary mode of FoxO, which may lead to the functional divergence.


Sequence similarity searches have performed in genome and scaffold data to identify homologues of FoxO in vertebrates. Phylogenetic analysis was used to characterize the family evolutionary history by identifying two duplications early in vertebrate evolution. To determine the mode of evolution in vertebrates, we performed a rigorous statistical analysis with FoxO gene sequences, including relative rate ratio tests, branch-specific dN/dS ratio tests, site-specific dN/dS ratio tests, branch-site dN/dS ratio tests and clade level amino acid conservation/variation patterns analysis. Our results suggest that FoxO is constrained by strong purifying selection except four sites in FoxO6, which have undergone positive Darwinian selection. The functional divergence in this family is best explained by either relaxed purifying selection or positive selection.


We present a phylogeny describing the evolutionary history of the FoxO gene family and show that the genes have evolved through duplications followed by purifying selection except for four sites in FoxO6 fixed by positive selection lie mostly within the non-conserved optimal PKB motif in the C-terminal part. Relaxed selection may play important roles in the process of functional differentiation evolved through gene duplications as well.