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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2004 Jan 27;101(4):986-91. Epub 2004 Jan 13.

A functional cellulose synthase from ascidian epidermis.

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  • 1Department of Biology, Coker Hall, CB 3280, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC 27599, USA.


Among animals, urochordates (e.g., ascidians) are unique in their ability to biosynthesize cellulose. In ascidians cellulose is synthesized in the epidermis and incorporated into a protective coat know as the tunic. A putative cellulose synthase-like gene was first identified in the genome sequences of the ascidian Ciona intestinalis. We describe here a cellulose synthase gene from the ascidian Ciona savignyi that is expressed in the epidermis. The predicted C. savignyi cellulose synthase amino acid sequence showed conserved features found in all cellulose synthases, including plants, but was most similar to cellulose synthases from bacteria, fungi, and Dictyostelium discoidium. However, unlike other known cellulose synthases, the predicted C. savignyi polypeptide has a degenerate cellulase-like region near the carboxyl-terminal end. An expression construct carrying the C. savignyi cDNA was found to restore cellulose biosynthesis to a cellulose synthase (CelA) minus mutant of Agrobacterium tumefaciens, showing that the predicted protein has cellulose synthase activity. The lack of cellulose biosynthesis in all other groups of metazoans and the similarity of the C. savignyi cellulose synthase to enzymes from cellulose-producing organisms support the hypothesis that the urochordates acquired the cellulose biosynthetic pathway by horizontal transfer.

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