Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

A comprehensive characterization of the caspase gene family in insects from the order Lepidoptera

Juliette Courtiade, Yannick Pauchet*, Heiko Vogel and David G Heckel

Author Affiliations

Department of Entomology, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, Hans-Knöll-Str. 8, 07745 Jena, Germany

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BMC Genomics 2011, 12:357  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-12-357

Published: 8 July 2011



The cell suicide pathway of apoptosis is a necessary event in the life of multicellular organisms. It is involved in many biological processes ranging from development to the immune response. Evolutionarily conserved proteases, called caspases, play a central role in regulating apoptosis. Reception of death stimuli triggers the activation of initiator caspases, which in turn activate the effector caspases. In Lepidoptera, apoptosis is crucial in processes such as metamorphosis or defending against baculovirus infection. The discovery of p35, a baculovirus protein inhibiting caspase activity, has led to the characterization of the first lepidopteran caspase, Sf-Caspase-1. Studies on Sf-Caspase-1 mode of activation suggested that apoptosis in Lepidoptera requires a cascade of caspase activation, as demonstrated in many other species.


In order to get insights into this gene family in Lepidoptera, we performed an extensive survey of lepidopteran-derived EST datasets. We identified 66 sequences distributed among 27 species encoding putative caspases. Phylogenetic analyses showed that Lepidoptera possess at least 5 caspases, for which we propose a unified nomenclature. According to homology to their Drosophila counterparts and their primary structure, we determined that Lep-Caspase-1, -2 and -3 are putative effector caspases, whereas Lep-Caspase-5 and -6 are putative initiators. The likely function of Lep-Caspase-4 remains unclear. Lep-Caspase-2 is absent from the silkworm genome and appears to be noctuid-specific, and to have arisen from a tandem duplication of the Caspase-1 gene. In the tobacco hawkmoth, 3 distinct transcripts encoding putative Caspase-4 were identified, suggesting at least 2 duplication events in this species.


The basic repertoire of five major types of caspases shared among Lepidoptera seems to be smaller than for most other groups studied to date, but gene duplication still plays a role in lineage-specific increases in diversity, just as in Diptera and mammals.