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BMC Evol Biol. 2005 Dec 2;5:69.

Evolution and origin of merlin, the product of the Neurofibromatosis type 2 (NF2) tumor-suppressor gene.

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  • 1Institute of Cytology and Genetics, Russian Academy of Sciences, 630090, Novosibirsk, Russia.



Merlin, the product of the Neurofibromatosis type 2 (NF2) tumor suppressor gene, belongs to the ezrin-radixin-moesin (ERM) subgroup of the protein 4.1 superfamily, which links cell surface glycoproteins to the actin cytoskeleton. While merlin's functional activity has been examined in mammalian and Drosophila models, little is understood about its evolution, diversity, and overall distribution among different taxa.


By combining bioinformatic and phylogenetic approaches, we demonstrate that merlin homologs are present across a wide range of metazoan lineages. While the phylogenetic tree shows a monophyletic origin of the ERM family, the origin of the merlin proteins is robustly separated from that of the ERM proteins. The derivation of merlin is thought to be in early metazoa. We have also observed the expansion of the ERM-like proteins within the vertebrate clade, which occurred after its separation from Urochordata (Ciona intestinalis). Amino acid sequence alignment reveals the absence of an actin-binding site in the C-terminal region of all merlin proteins from various species but the presence of a conserved internal binding site in the N-terminal domain of the merlin and ERM proteins. In addition, a more conserved pattern of amino acid residues is found in the region containing the so-called "Blue Box," although some amino acid substitutions in this region exist in the merlin sequences of worms, fish, and Ciona. Examination of sequence variability at functionally significant sites, including the serine-518 residue, the phosphorylation of which modulates merlin's intra-molecular association and function as a tumor suppressor, identifies several potentially important sites that are conserved among all merlin proteins but divergent in the ERM proteins. Secondary structure prediction reveals the presence of a conserved alpha-helical domain in the central to C-terminal region of the merlin proteins of various species. The conserved residues and structures identified correspond to the important sites highlighted by the available crystal structures of the merlin and ERM proteins. Furthermore, analysis of the merlin gene structures from various organisms reveals the increase of gene length during evolution due to the expansion of introns; however, a reduction of intron number and length appears to occur in the merlin gene of the insect group.


Our results demonstrate a monophyletic origin of the merlin proteins with their root in the early metazoa. The overall similarity among the primary and secondary structures of all merlin proteins and the conservation of several functionally important residues suggest a universal role for merlin in a wide range of metazoa.

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