Mechanisms for Evolving Hypervariability: The Case of Conopeptides

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Hypervariability is a prominent feature of large gene families that mediate interactions between organisms, such as venom-derived toxins or immunoglobulins. In order to study mechanisms for evolution of hypervariability, we examined an EST-generated assemblage of 170 distinct conopeptide sequences from the venoms of five species of marine Conus snails. These sequences were assigned to eight gene families, defined by conserved elements in the signal domain and untranslated regions. Order-of-magnitude differences were observed in the expression levels of individual conopeptides, with five to seven transcripts typically comprising over 50% of the sequenced clones in a given species. The conopeptide precursor alignments revealed four striking features peculiar to the mature peptide domain: (1) an accelerated rate of nucleotide substitution, (2) a bias for transversions over transitions in nucleotide substitutions, (3) a position-specific conservation of cysteine codons within the hypervariable region, and (4) a preponderance of nonsynonymous substitutions over synonymous substitutions. We propose that the first three observations argue for a mutator mechanism targeted to mature domains in conopeptide genes, combining a protective activity specific for cysteine codons and a mutagenic polymerase that exhibits transversion bias, such as DNA polymerase V. The high Dn/Ds ratio is consistent with positive or diversifying selection, and further analyses by intraspecific/interspecific gene tree contingency tests weakly support recent diversifying selection in the evolution of conopeptides. Since only the most highly expressed transcripts segregate in gene trees according to the feeding specificity of the species, diversifying selection might be acting primarily on these sequences. The combination of a targeted mutator mechanism to generate high variability with the subsequent action of diversifying selection on highly expressed variants might explain both the hypervariability of conopeptides and the large number of unique sequences per species.

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