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Open Access Research article

Amphioxus (Branchiostoma floridae) has orthologs of vertebrate odorant receptors

Allison M Churcher and John S Taylor*

Author Affiliations

Department of Biology, University of Victoria, Box 3020, Station CSC, Victoria BC, V8W 3N5, Canada

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:242  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-242

Published: 5 October 2009

Abstract

Background

A common feature of chemosensory systems is the involvement of G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) in the detection of environmental stimuli. Several lineages of GPCRs are involved in vertebrate olfaction, including trace amine-associated receptors, type 1 and 2 vomeronasal receptors and odorant receptors (ORs). Gene duplication and gene loss in different vertebrate lineages have lead to an enormous amount of variation in OR gene repertoire among species; some fish have fewer than 100 OR genes, while some mammals possess more than 1000. Fascinating features of the vertebrate olfactory system include allelic exclusion, where each olfactory neuron expresses only a single OR gene, and axonal guidance where neurons expressing the same receptor project axons to common glomerulae. By identifying homologous ORs in vertebrate and in non-vertebrate chordates, we hope to expose ancestral features of the chordate olfactory system that will help us to better understand the evolution of the receptors themselves and of the cellular components of the olfactory system.

Results

We have identified 50 full-length and 11 partial ORs in Branchiostoma floridae. No ORs were identified in Ciona intestinalis. Phylogenetic analysis places the B. floridae OR genes in a monophyletic clade with the vertebrate ORs. The majority of OR genes in amphioxus are intronless and many are also tandemly arrayed in the genome. By exposing conserved amino acid motifs and testing the ability of those motifs to discriminate between ORs and non-OR GPCRs, we identified three OR-specific amino acid motifs common in cephalochordate, fish and mammalian and ORs.

Conclusion

Here, we show that amphioxus has orthologs of vertebrate ORs. This conclusion demonstrates that the receptors, and perhaps other components of vertebrate olfaction, evolved at least 550 million years ago. We have also identified highly conserved amino acid motifs that may be important for maintaining receptor conformation or regulating receptor activity. We anticipate that the identification of vertebrate OR orthologs in amphioxus will lead to an improved understanding of OR gene family evolution, OR gene function, and the mechanisms that control cell-specific expression, axonal guidance, signal transduction and signal integration.