A newly classified vertebrate calpain protease, directly ancestral to CAPN1 and 2, episodically evolved a restricted physiological function in placental mammals

Daniel J Macqueen, Margaret L Delbridge, Sujatha Manthri, Ian A Johnston

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32 Citations (Scopus)


The most studied members of the calpain protease superfamily are CAPN1 and 2, which are conserved across vertebrates. Another similar family member called mu/m-CAPN has been identified in birds alone. Here, we establish that mu/m-CAPN shares one-to-one orthology with CAPN11, previously described only in eutherians (placental mammals). We use the name CAPN11 for this family member and identify orthologues across vertebrate lineages, which form a monophyletic phylogenetic clade directly ancestral to CAPN1 and 2. In lineages branching before therians (live-bearing mammals), the CAPN11 coding region has evolved under strong purifying selection, with low nonsynonymous (d(N)) versus synonymous (d(S)) substitution rates (d(N)/d(S) = 0.076 across pretherians), and its transcripts were detected widely across different tissues. These characteristics are present in CAPN1 and 2 across vertebrate lineages and indicate that pretherian CAPN11 likewise has conserved a wide physiological function. However, an approximately 7-fold elevation in d(N)/d(S) is evident along the CAPN11 branch splitting eutherians from platypus, paralleled by a shift to "testis-specific" gene regulation. Estimates of d(N)/d(S) in eutherians were approximately 3-fold elevated compared with pretherians and coding and transcriptional-level evidence suggests that CAPN11 is functionally absent in marsupials. Many CAPN11 sites are functionally constrained in eutherians to conserve a residue with radically different biochemical properties to a fixed state shared between pretherian CAPN11 and CAPN1 and 2. Protein homology modeling demonstrated that many such eutherian-specific residue replacements modify or ablate interactions with the calpain inhibitor calpastatin that are observed in both pretherian orthologues and CAPN1/2. We propose a model akin to the Dykhuizen-Hartl effect, where inefficient purifying selection and increased genetic drift associated with a reduction in effective population size, drove the fixation of mutations in regulatory and coding regions of CAPN11 of a common marsupial-eutherian ancestor. A subset of these changes had a cumulative adaptive advantage in a eutherian ancestor because of lineage-specific aspects of sperm physiology, whereas in marsupials, no advantage was realized and the gene was disabled. This work supports that functional divergence among gene family member orthologues is possible in the absence of widespread positive selection.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1886-1902
Number of pages17
JournalMolecular Biology and Evolution
Issue number8
Early online date11 Mar 2010
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2010


  • CAPN11 and µ/m-CAPN
  • episodic gene evolution
  • functional divergence of gene family orthologues
  • transcriptional regulation
  • functional constraints
  • Dykhuizen–Hartl effect


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