Open Access Open Badges Research article

Evolutionary relationships of ATP-Binding Cassette (ABC) uptake porters

Wei Hao Zheng12, Åke Västermark1, Maksim A Shlykov13, Vamsee Reddy14, Eric I Sun15 and Milton H Saier1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Molecular Biology, University of California at San Diego, La Jolla, CA, 92093-0116, USA

2 Present address: Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, WI, USA

3 Present address: University of Michigan Medical School, Ann Arbor, MI, USA

4 Present address: University of Calgary, Calgary, AB, Canada

5 Present address: Burnham Institute, La Jolla, CA, USA

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BMC Microbiology 2013, 13:98  doi:10.1186/1471-2180-13-98

Published: 6 May 2013



The ATP-Binding Cassette (ABC) functional superfamily includes integral transmembrane exporters that have evolved three times independently, forming three families termed ABC1, ABC2 and ABC3, upon which monophyletic ATPases have been superimposed for energy-coupling purposes [e.g., J Membr Biol 231(1):1-10, 2009]. The goal of the work reported in this communication was to understand how the integral membrane constituents of ABC uptake transporters with different numbers of predicted or established transmembrane segments (TMSs) evolved. In a few cases, high resolution 3-dimensional structures were available, and in these cases, their structures plus primary sequence analyses allowed us to predict evolutionary pathways of origin.


All of the 35 currently recognized families of ABC uptake proteins except for one (family 21) were shown to be homologous using quantitative statistical methods. These methods involved using established programs that compare native protein sequences with each other, after having compared each sequence with thousands of its own shuffled sequences, to gain evidence for homology. Topological analyses suggested that these porters contain numbers of TMSs ranging from four or five to twenty. Intragenic duplication events occurred multiple times during the evolution of these porters. They originated from a simple primordial protein containing 3 TMSs which duplicated to 6 TMSs, and then produced porters of the various topologies via insertions, deletions and further duplications. Except for family 21 which proved to be related to ABC1 exporters, they are all related to members of the previously identified ABC2 exporter family. Duplications that occurred in addition to the primordial 3 → 6 duplication included 5 → 10, 6 → 12 and 10 → 20 TMSs. In one case, protein topologies were uncertain as different programs gave discrepant predictions. It could not be concluded with certainty whether a 4 TMS ancestral protein or a 5 TMS ancestral protein duplicated to give an 8 or a 10 TMS protein. Evidence is presented suggesting but not proving that the 2TMS repeat unit in ABC1 porters derived from the two central TMSs of ABC2 porters. These results provide structural information and plausible evolutionary pathways for the appearance of most integral membrane constituents of ABC uptake transport systems.


Almost all integral membrane uptake porters of the ABC superfamily belong to the ABC2 family, previously established for exporters. Most of these proteins can have 5, 6, 10, 12 or 20 TMSs per polypeptide chain. Evolutionary pathways for their appearance are proposed.

ATP-Binding Cassette; ABC; Uptake; Transport proteins; Membranes; Protein superfamilies; Comparisons