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Mol Biol Evol. 2008 Feb;25(2):330-8. Epub 2007 Nov 28.

Phylogenetic comparison of huntingtin homologues reveals the appearance of a primitive polyQ in sea urchin.

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Department of Pharmacological Sciences, University of Milan, Milano, Italy.


Huntingtin is a completely soluble 3,144 amino acid (aa) protein characterized by the presence of an amino-terminal polymorphic polyglutamine (polyQ) tract, whose aberrant expansion causes the progressively neurodegenerative Huntington's disease (HD). Biological evidence indicates that huntingtin (htt) is beneficial to cells (particularly to brain neurons) and that loss of its neuronal function may contribute to HD. The exact protein domains involved in its neuroprotective function are unknown. Evolutionary analyses of htt primary aa have so far been limited to a few species, but its thorough assessment may help to clarify the functions emerging during evolution. We made an extensive comparative analysis of the available htt protein homologues from different organisms along the metazoan phylogenetic tree and defined the presence of 3 different conservative blocks corresponding to human htt aa 1-386 (htt1), 683-1,586 (htt2), and 2,437-3,078 (htt3), in which HEAT (Huntingtin, Elongator factor3, the regulatory A subunit of protein phosphatase 2A, and TOR1) repeats are well conserved. We also describe the cloning and sequencing of sea urchin htt mRNA, the oldest deuterostome homologue so far available. Multiple alignment shows the first appearance of a primitive polyQ in sea urchin, which predates an ancestral polyQ sequence in a nonchordate environment and defines the polyQ characteristic as being typical of the deuterostome branch. The fact that glutamines have conserved positions in deuterostomes and the polyQ size increases during evolution suggests that the protein has a possibly Q-dependent role. Finally, we report an evident relaxing constraint of the N-terminal block in Ciona and drosophilids that correlates with the absence of polyQ and which may indicate that the N-terminal portion of htt has evolved different functions in Ciona and protostomes.

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