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BMC Evol Biol. 2010 Feb 3;10:34. doi: 10.1186/1471-2148-10-34.

The backbone of the post-synaptic density originated in a unicellular ancestor of choanoflagellates and metazoans.

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UPMC Univ Paris 06, UMR 7138 Systématique, Adaptation, Evolution CNRS IRD MNHN, Bâtiment A, Université Pierre et Marie Curie, 7 Quai St Bernard, 75005 Paris, France.



Comparative genomics of the early diverging metazoan lineages and of their unicellular sister-groups opens new window to reconstructing the genetic changes which preceded or accompanied the evolution of multicellular body plans. A recent analysis found that the genome of the nerve-less sponges encodes the homologues of most vertebrate post-synaptic proteins. In vertebrate excitatory synapses, these proteins assemble to form the post-synaptic density, a complex molecular platform linking membrane receptors, components of their signalling pathways, and the cytoskeleton. Newly available genomes from Monosiga brevicollis (a member of Choanoflagellata, the closest unicellular relatives of animals) and Trichoplax adhaerens (a member of Placozoa: besides sponges, the only nerve-less metazoans) offer an opportunity to refine our understanding of post-synaptic protein evolution.


Searches for orthologous proteins and reconstruction of gene gains/losses based on the taxon phylogeny indicate that post-synaptic proteins originated in two main steps. The backbone scaffold proteins (Shank, Homer, DLG) and some of their partners were acquired in a unicellular ancestor of choanoflagellates and metazoans. A substantial additional set appeared in an exclusive ancestor of the Metazoa. The placozoan genome contains most post-synaptic genes but lacks some of them. Notably, the master-scaffold protein Shank might have been lost secondarily in the placozoan lineage.


The time of origination of most post-synaptic proteins was not concomitant with the acquisition of synapses or neural-like cells. The backbone of the scaffold emerged in a unicellular context and was probably not involved in cell-cell communication. Based on the reconstructed protein composition and potential interactions, its ancestral function could have been to link calcium signalling and cytoskeleton regulation. The complex later became integrated into the evolving synapse through the addition of novel functionalities.

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