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Crit Rev Biochem Mol Biol. 1997;32(4):255-306.

Molecular divergence of lysozymes and alpha-lactalbumin.

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  • 1Structural Glycobiology Section, National Cancer Institute, N.I.H., Frederick, MD 21702-1201, USA.


The vast number of proteins that sustain the currently living organisms have been generated from a relatively small number of ancestral genes that has involved a variety of processes. Lysozyme is an ancient protein whose origin goes back an estimated 400 to 600 million years. This protein was originally a bacteriolytic defensive agent and has been adapted to serve a digestive function on at least two occasions, separated by nearly 40 million years. The origins of the related goose type and T4 phage lysozyme that are distinct from the more common C type are obscure. They share no discernable amino acid sequence identity and yet they possess common secondary and tertiary structures. Lysozyme C gene also gave rise, after gene duplication 300 to 400 million years ago, to a gene that currently codes for alpha-lactalbumin, a protein expressed only in the lactating mammary gland of all but a few species of mammals. It is required for the synthesis of lactose, the sugar secreted in milk. alpha-Lactalbumin shares only 40% identity in amino acid sequence with lysozyme C, but it has a closer spatial structure and gene organization. Although structurally similar, functionally they are quite distinct. Specific amino acid substitutions in alpha-lactalbumin account for the loss of the enzyme activity of lysozyme and the acquisition of the features necessary for its role in lactose synthesis. Evolutionary implications are as yet unclear but are being unraveled in many laboratories.

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