Open Access Research article

Conservation of ciliary proteins in plants with no cilia

Matthew E Hodges13, Bill Wickstead23, Keith Gull3 and Jane A Langdale1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Plant Sciences, University of Oxford, South Parks Rd, Oxford OX1 3RB, UK

2 Centre for Genetics and Genomics, University of Nottingham, Nottingham NG7 2UH, UK

3 Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford, South Parks Rd, Oxford OX1 3RE, UK

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BMC Plant Biology 2011, 11:185  doi:10.1186/1471-2229-11-185

Published: 30 December 2011



Eukaryotic cilia are complex, highly conserved microtubule-based organelles with a broad phylogenetic distribution. Cilia were present in the last eukaryotic common ancestor and many proteins involved in cilia function have been conserved through eukaryotic diversification. However, cilia have also been lost multiple times in different lineages, with at least two losses occurring within the land plants. Whereas all non-seed plants produce cilia for motility of male gametes, some gymnosperms and all angiosperms lack cilia. During these evolutionary losses, proteins with ancestral ciliary functions may be lost or co-opted into different functions.


Here we identify a core set of proteins with an inferred ciliary function that are conserved in ciliated eukaryotic species. We interrogate this genomic dataset to identify proteins with a predicted ancestral ciliary role that have been maintained in non-ciliated land plants. In support of our prediction, we demonstrate that several of these proteins have a flagellar localisation in protozoan trypanosomes. The phylogenetic distribution of these genes within the land plants indicates evolutionary scenarios of either sub- or neo-functionalisation and expression data analysis shows that these genes are highly expressed in Arabidopsis thaliana pollen cells.


A large number of proteins possess a phylogenetic ciliary profile indicative of ciliary function. Remarkably, many genes with an ancestral ciliary role are maintained in non-ciliated land plants. These proteins have been co-opted to perform novel functions, most likely before the loss of cilia, some of which appear related to the formation of the male gametes.

Evolution; Cilia; Flagella; Basal Body; Centriole; Land Plants