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J Mol Evol. 2010 Apr;70(4):303-12. doi: 10.1007/s00239-010-9337-z. Epub 2010 Mar 26.

Distinct molecular evolutionary mechanisms underlie the functional diversification of the Wnt and TGFbeta signaling pathways.

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School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-4501, USA.


The canonical Wnt pathway is one of the oldest and most functionally diverse of animal intercellular signaling pathways. Though much is known about loss-of-function phenotypes for Wnt pathway components in several model organisms, the question of how this pathway achieved its current repertoire of functions has not been addressed. Our phylogenetic analyses of 11 multigene families from five species belonging to distinct phyla, as well as additional analyses employing the 12 Drosophila genomes, suggest frequent gene duplications affecting ligands and receptors as well as co-evolution of new ligand-receptor pairs likely facilitated the expansion of this pathway's capabilities. Further, several examples of recent gene loss are visible in Drosophila when compared to family members in other phyla. By comparison the TGFbeta signaling pathway is characterized by ancient gene duplications of ligands, receptors, and signal transducers with recent duplication events restricted to the vertebrate lineage. Overall, the data suggest that two distinct molecular evolutionary mechanisms can create a functionally diverse developmental signaling pathway. These are the recent dynamic generation of new genes and ligand-receptor interactions as seen in the Wnt pathway and the conservative adaptation of ancient pre-existing genes to new roles as seen in the TGFbeta pathway. From a practical perspective, the former mechanism limits the investigator's ability to transfer knowledge of specific pathway functions across species while the latter facilitates knowledge transfer.

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