Divergent structures of Caenorhabditis elegans cytochrome P450 genes suggest the frequent loss and gain of introns during the evolution of nematodes.

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The Caenorhabditis elegans genome contains more than 60 cytochrome P450 (CYP) genes. The exon-intron organizations of all of the available and potentially active C. elegans CYP genes were inferred by a newly developed program for predicting protein-coding exons based on the alignment of a genomic DNA sequence and a protein profile. From the predicted amino acid sequences, all of the C. elegans CYP genes except one were classified into three groups, which were closely related to the mammalian drug-metabolizing P450 gene families CYP2, CYP3, and CYP4. The gene structures were strikingly divergent within each group; 20, 10, and 5 unique gene organizations were identified among 40, 18, and 5 genes in the CYP2-, CYP3-, and CYP4-related groups, respectively. The degrees of divergence in gene organization were strongly correlated with those in the amino acid sequences of encoding proteins, and the minimum rate of change in an intron insertion site was estimated to be about 90 times less frequent than amino acid substitutions. Parsimonious analyses suggested that frequent loss and gain of introns has occurred during the evolution of CYP genes in each group after the divergence of nematodes, arthropods, and deuterostomia. Few, if any, incidents of intron sliding were evident, and a model that did not allow intron insertions was highly inconsistent with the observations. All of these findings are explained better by the intron-late view than by the intron-early view.

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