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RNA. 2007 Jul;13(7):952-66. Epub 2007 May 18.

Evolution of the iron-responsive element.

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  • 1Department of Medical Biochemistry and Cell Biology, Institute of Biomedicine, Sahlgrenska Academy at Göteborg University, Göteborg, Sweden.


An RNA hairpin structure referred to as the iron-responsive element (IRE) and iron regulatory proteins (IRPs) are key players in the control of iron metabolism in animal cells. They regulate translation initiation or mRNA stability, and the IRE is found in a variety of mRNAs, such as those encoding ferritin, transferrin receptor (Tfr), erythroid aminolevulinic acid synthase (eALAS), mitochondrial aconitase (mACO), ferroportin, and divalent metal transporter 1 (DMT1). We have studied the evolution of the IRE by considering all mRNAs previously known to be associated with this structure and by computationally examining its occurrence in a large variety of eukaryotic organisms. More than 100 novel sequences together with approximately 50 IREs that were previously reported resulted in a comprehensive view of the phylogenetic distribution of this element. A comparison of the different mRNAs shows that the IREs of eALAS and mACO are found in chordates, those of ferroportin and Tfr1 are found in vertebrates, and the IRE of DMT1 is confined to mammals. In contrast, the IRE of ferritin occurs in a majority of metazoa including lower metazoa such as sponges and Nematostella (sea anemone). These findings suggest that the ferritin IRE represents the ancestral version of this type of translational control and that during the evolution of higher animals the IRE structure was adopted by other genes. On the basis of primary sequence comparison between different organisms, we suggest that some of these IREs developed by "convergent evolution" through stepwise changes in sequence, rather than by recombination events.

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