Open Access Research article

The evolutionary differentiation of two histone H2A.Z variants in chordates (H2A.Z-1 and H2A.Z-2) is mediated by a stepwise mutation process that affects three amino acid residues

José M Eirín-López1, Rodrigo González-Romero1, Deanna Dryhurst2, Toyotaka Ishibashi2 and Juan Ausió2*

Author affiliations

1 Departamento de Biología Celular y Molecular, Universidade da Coruña, E15071 A Coruña, Spain

2 Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology, University of Victoria, V8W 3P6 Victoria, BC, Canada

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Citation and License

BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:31  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-31

Published: 4 February 2009



The histone H2A family encompasses the greatest number of core histone variants of which the replacement variant H2A.Z is currently one of the most heavily studied. No clear mechanism for the functional variability that H2A.Z imparts to chromatin has yet been proposed. While most of the past studies have referred to H2A.Z generically as a single protein, in vertebrates it is a mixture of two protein forms H2A.Z-1 (previously H2A.Z) and H2A.Z-2 (previously H2A.F/Z or H2A.V) that differ by three amino acids.


We have performed an extensive study on the long-term evolution of H2A.Z across metazoans with special emphasis on the possible selective mechanisms responsible for the differentiation between H2A.Z-1 and H2A.Z-2. Our results reveal a common origin of both forms early in chordate evolution. The evolutionary process responsible for the differentiation involves refined stepwise mutation change within the codons of the three differential residues. This eventually led to differences in the intensity of the selective constraints acting upon the different H2A.Z forms in vertebrates.


The results presented in this work definitively reveal that the existence of H2A.Z-1 and H2A.Z-2 is not a whim of random genetic drift. Our analyses demonstrate that H2A.Z-2 is not only subject to a strong purifying selection but it is significantly more evolutionarily constrained than H2A.Z-1. Whether or not the evolutionary drift between H2A.Z-1 and H2A.Z-2 has resulted in a functional diversification of these proteins awaits further research. Nevertheless, the present work suggests that in the process of their differently constrained evolutionary pathways, these two forms may have acquired new or complementary functions.