Characterization of the definitive classical calpain family of vertebrates using phylogenetic, evolutionary and expression analyses

Daniel J. MacQueen, Alexander H. Wilcox

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28 Citations (Scopus)
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The calpains are a superfamily of proteases with extensive relevance to human health and welfare. Vast research attention is given to the vertebrate ‘classical’ subfamily, making it surprising that the evolutionary origins, distribution and relationships of these genes is poorly characterized. Consequently, there exists uncertainty about the conservation of gene family structure, function and expression that has been principally defined from work with mammals. Here, more than 200 vertebrate classical calpains were incorporated in phylogenetic analyses spanning an unprecedented range of taxa, including jawless and cartilaginous fish. We demonstrate that the common vertebrate ancestor had at least six classical calpains, including a single gene that gave rise to CAPN11, 1, 2 and 8 in the early jawed fish lineage, plus CAPN3, 9, 12, 13 and a novel calpain gene, hereafter named CAPN17. We reveal that while all vertebrate classical calpains have been subject to persistent purifying selection during evolution, the degree and nature of selective pressure has often been lineage-dependent. The tissue expression of the complete classic calpain family was assessed in representative teleost fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. This highlighted systematic divergence in expression across vertebrate taxa, with most classic calpain genes from fish and amphibians having more extensive tissue distribution than in amniotes. Our data suggest that classical calpain functions have frequently diverged during vertebrate evolution and challenge the ongoing value of the established system of classifying calpains by expression.
Original languageEnglish
Article number130219
JournalOpen Biology
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2014


  • calpain superfamily
  • classical calpain
  • vertebrate evolution
  • novel calpain
  • CAPN17
  • expression classification


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