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J Mol Evol. 2014 Apr;78(3-4):217-33. doi: 10.1007/s00239-014-9612-5. Epub 2014 Feb 21.

Molecular evolution and functional divergence of the metallothionein gene family in vertebrates.

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CIBIO, Centro de Investigação em Biodiversidade e Recursos Genéticos Campus Agrário de Vairão, Universidade do Porto, 4485-661, Vairão, Portugal.


The metallothionein (MT) gene superfamily consists of metal-binding proteins involved in various metal detoxification and storage mechanisms. The evolution of this gene family in vertebrates has mostly been studied in mammals using sparse taxon or gene sampling. Genomic databases and available data on MT protein function and expression allow a better understanding of the evolution and functional divergence of the different MT types. We recovered 77 MT coding sequences from 20 representative vertebrates with annotated complete genomes. We found multiple MT genes, also in reptiles, which were thought to have only one MT type. Phylogenetic and synteny analyses indicate the existence of a eutherian MT1 and MT2, a tetrapod MT3, an amniote MT4, and fish MT. The optimal gene-tree/species-tree reconciliation analyses identified the best root in the fish clade. Functional analyses reveal variation in hydropathic index among protein domains, likely correlated with their distinct flexibility and metal affinity. Analyses of functional divergence identified amino acid sites correlated with functional divergence among MT types. Uncovering the number of genes and sites possibly correlated with functional divergence will help to design cost-effective MT functional and gene expression studies. This will permit further understanding of the distinct roles and specificity of these proteins and to properly target specific MT for different types of functional studies. Therefore, this work presents a critical background on the molecular evolution and functional divergence of vertebrate MTs to carry out further detailed studies on the relationship between heavy metal metabolism and tolerances among vertebrates.

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