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Open Access Research article

Identification, distribution and molecular evolution of the pacifastin gene family in Metazoa

Bert Breugelmans*, Gert Simonet, Vincent van Hoef, Sofie Van Soest and Jozef Vanden Broeck

Author Affiliations

Department of Animal Physiology and Neurobiology, Zoological Institute K.U.Leuven, Naamsestraat 59, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2009, 9:97  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-9-97

Published: 12 May 2009

Abstract

Background

Members of the pacifastin family are serine peptidase inhibitors, most of which are produced as multi domain precursor proteins. Structural and biochemical characteristics of insect pacifastin-like peptides have been studied intensively, but only one inhibitor has been functionally characterised. Recent sequencing projects of metazoan genomes have created an unprecedented opportunity to explore the distribution, evolution and functional diversification of pacifastin genes in the animal kingdom.

Results

A large scale in silico data mining search led to the identification of 83 pacifastin members with 284 inhibitor domains, distributed over 55 species from three metazoan phyla. In contrast to previous assumptions, members of this family were also found in other phyla than Arthropoda, including the sister phylum Onychophora and the 'primitive', non-bilaterian Placozoa. In Arthropoda, pacifastin members were found to be distributed among insect families of nearly all insect orders and for the first time also among crustacean species other than crayfish and the Chinese mitten crab. Contrary to precursors from Crustacea, the majority of insect pacifastin members contain dibasic cleavage sites, indicative for posttranslational processing into numerous inhibitor peptides. Whereas some insect species have lost the pacifastin gene, others were found to have several (often clustered) paralogous genes. Amino acids corresponding to the reactive site or involved in the folding of the inhibitor domain were analysed as a basis for the biochemical properties.

Conclusion

The absence of the pacifastin gene in some insect genomes and the extensive gene expansion in other insects are indicative for the rapid (adaptive) evolution of this gene family. In addition, differential processing mechanisms and a high variability in the reactive site residues and the inner core interactions contribute to a broad functional diversification of inhibitor peptides, indicating wide ranging roles in different physiological processes. Based on the observation of a pacifastin gene in Placozoa, it can be hypothesized that the ancestral pacifastin gene has occurred before the divergence of bilaterian animals. However, considering differences in gene structure between the placozoan and other pacifastin genes and the existence of a 'pacifastin gene gap' between Placozoa and Onychophora/Arthropoda, it cannot be excluded that the pacifastin signature originated twice by convergent evolution.