Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Phylogenetic analysis of pectin-related gene families in Physcomitrella patens and nine other plant species yields evolutionary insights into cell walls

Thomas W McCarthy, Joshua P Der, Loren A Honaas, Claude W dePamphilis and Charles T Anderson*

Author Affiliations

Department of Biology, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, USA

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BMC Plant Biology 2014, 14:79  doi:10.1186/1471-2229-14-79

Published: 26 March 2014



Pectins are acidic sugar-containing polysaccharides that are universally conserved components of the primary cell walls of plants and modulate both tip and diffuse cell growth. However, many of their specific functions and the evolution of the genes responsible for producing and modifying them are incompletely understood. The moss Physcomitrella patens is emerging as a powerful model system for the study of plant cell walls. To identify deeply conserved pectin-related genes in Physcomitrella, we generated phylogenetic trees for 16 pectin-related gene families using sequences from ten plant genomes and analyzed the evolutionary relationships within these families.


Contrary to our initial hypothesis that a single ancestral gene was present for each pectin-related gene family in the common ancestor of land plants, five of the 16 gene families, including homogalacturonan galacturonosyltransferases, polygalacturonases, pectin methylesterases, homogalacturonan methyltransferases, and pectate lyase-like proteins, show evidence of multiple members in the early land plant that gave rise to the mosses and vascular plants. Seven of the gene families, the UDP-rhamnose synthases, UDP-glucuronic acid epimerases, homogalacturonan galacturonosyltransferase-like proteins, β-1,4-galactan β-1,4-galactosyltransferases, rhamnogalacturonan II xylosyltransferases, and pectin acetylesterases appear to have had a single member in the common ancestor of land plants. We detected no Physcomitrella members in the xylogalacturonan xylosyltransferase, rhamnogalacturonan I arabinosyltransferase, pectin methylesterase inhibitor, or polygalacturonase inhibitor protein families.


Several gene families related to the production and modification of pectins in plants appear to have multiple members that are conserved as far back as the common ancestor of mosses and vascular plants. The presence of multiple members of these families even before the divergence of other important cell wall-related genes, such as cellulose synthases, suggests a more complex role than previously suspected for pectins in the evolution of land plants. The presence of relatively small pectin-related gene families in Physcomitrella as compared to Arabidopsis makes it an attractive target for analysis of the functions of pectins in cell walls. In contrast, the absence of genes in Physcomitrella for some families suggests that certain pectin modifications, such as homogalacturonan xylosylation, arose later during land plant evolution.

Plant cell wall; Pectin; Physcomitrella patens; Arabidopsis thaliana; Phylogeny; Evolution