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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Emergence, development and diversification of the TGF-β signalling pathway within the animal kingdom

Lukasz Huminiecki1*, Leon Goldovsky2, Shiri Freilich2, Aristidis Moustakas1, Christos Ouzounis2 and Carl-Henrik Heldin1

Author Affiliations

1 Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden

2 Computational Genomics, Institute of Agrobiotechnology, Thessaloniki, Greece

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:28  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-28

Published: 3 February 2009

Abstract

Background

The question of how genomic processes, such as gene duplication, give rise to co-ordinated organismal properties, such as emergence of new body plans, organs and lifestyles, is of importance in developmental and evolutionary biology. Herein, we focus on the diversification of the transforming growth factor-β (TGF-β) pathway – one of the fundamental and versatile metazoan signal transduction engines.

Results

After an investigation of 33 genomes, we show that the emergence of the TGF-β pathway coincided with appearance of the first known animal species. The primordial pathway repertoire consisted of four Smads and four receptors, similar to those observed in the extant genome of the early diverging tablet animal (Trichoplax adhaerens). We subsequently retrace duplications in ancestral genomes on the lineage leading to humans, as well as lineage-specific duplications, such as those which gave rise to novel Smads and receptors in teleost fishes. We conclude that the diversification of the TGF-β pathway can be parsimoniously explained according to the 2R model, with additional rounds of duplications in teleost fishes. Finally, we investigate duplications followed by accelerated evolution which gave rise to an atypical TGF-β pathway in free-living bacterial feeding nematodes of the genus Rhabditis.

Conclusion

Our results challenge the view of well-conserved developmental pathways. The TGF-β signal transduction engine has expanded through gene duplication, continually adopting new functions, as animals grew in anatomical complexity, colonized new environments, and developed an active immune system.