Stepwise Functional Evolution in a Fungal Sugar Transporter Family

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Abstract

Sugar transport is of the utmost importance for most cells and is central to a wide range of applied fields. However, despite the straightforward in silico assignment of many novel transporters, including sugar porters, to existing families, their exact biological role and evolutionary trajectory often remain unclear, mainly because biochemical characterization of membrane proteins is inherently challenging, but also owing to their uncommonly turbulent evolutionary histories. In addition, many important shifts in membrane carrier function are apparently ancient, which further limits our ability to reconstruct evolutionary trajectories in a reliable manner. Here, we circumvented some of these obstacles by examining the relatively recent emergence of a unique family of fungal sugar facilitators, related to drug antiporters. The former transporters, named Ffz, were previously shown to be required for fructophilic metabolism in yeasts. We first exploited the wealth of fungal genomic data available to define a comprehensive but well-delimited family of Ffz-like transporters, showing that they are only present in Dikarya. Subsequently, a combination of phylogenetic analyses and in vivo functional characterization was used to retrace important changes in function, while highlighting the evolutionary events that are most likely to have determined extant distribution of the gene, such as horizontal gene transfers (HGTs). One such HGT event is proposed to have set the stage for the onset of fructophilic metabolism in yeasts, a trait that according to our results may be the metabolic hallmark of close to 100 yeast species that thrive in sugar rich environments.

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