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J Struct Funct Genomics. 2003;3(1-4):131-7.

Crystallin genes: specialization by changes in gene regulation may precede gene duplication.

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Laboratory of Molecular and Developmental Biology, National Eye Institute, NIH, Bethesda, Maryland 20892-2730, USA.


The crystallins account for 80-90% of the water-soluble proteins of the transparent lens. These diverse proteins are responsible for the optical properties of the lens and have been recruited from metabolic enzymes and stress proteins. They often differ among species (i.e. are taxon-specific) and may be expressed outside of the lens where they have non-refractive roles (a situation we call gene sharing). Crystallin recruitment has occurred by changes in gene regulation resulting in high lens expression. Duck lactate dehydrogenase/epsilon-crystallin and alpha-enolase/tau-crystallin are each encoded in single-copy genes, consistent with these enzymes acquiring a crystallin role, without loss of their nonlens metabolic function, by a change in gene regulation in the absence of gene duplication. The small heat shock protein/alpha-crystallins and avian argininosuccinate lyase/delta-crystallins were also recruited by a change in gene regulation leading to high lens expression, except this was followed by a gene duplication with further lens specialization of the alphaA and the delta1 (in chickens) crystallin genes. Cephalopod (squid and octopus) S-crystallins were recruited from glutathione S-transferase apparently after duplication of the original gene encoding the enzyme, although this remains uncertain. We speculate that one of the new genes (glutathione S-transferase/S11-crystallin) specialized for lens expression by a change in gene regulation and subsequently duplicated many times to form the lens-specialized, multiple S-crystallins that lack enzymatic activity. That similar transcription factors (e.g. Pax-6, retinoic acid receptors, maf, Sox, AP-1, CREB) regulate different crystallin genes suggest that common features of lens-specific expression have played a pivotal role for recruiting the diverse, multifunctional proteins as crystallins.

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