Isolation of AmphiCASP-3/7, an ancestral caspase from amphioxus (Branchiostoma floridae). Evolutionary considerations for vertebrate caspases

Cell Death Differ. 2002 Oct;9(10):1078-89. doi: 10.1038/sj.cdd.4401075.


Caspases are a large family of cysteine proteases that play an essential role as effectors of apoptosis in metazoans. Thirteen different caspases have been identified in vertebrates so far, and their function in apoptotic or inflammatory responses is well documented. We have taken advantage of the broadly accepted condition of amphioxus (Cephalochordata, Branchiostoma floridae) as the closest living relative to vertebrates to study the molecular evolution of caspases. Here we report for the first time the pattern of programmed cell death during development of cephalochordates. We also describe the isolation and functional characterisation of the first caspase related gene in amphioxus, which we named AmphiCASP-3/7. The amphioxus caspase is expressed throughout development, from the gastrula to larva stage. AmphiCASP-3/7 induced cell death when ectopically expressed in human HEK 293T cells, and the recombinant protein was inhibited by DEVD peptides. AmphiCASP-3/7 reflects the primitive condition of the executor vertebrates caspases -3 and -7, prior to vertebrate specific duplication. Interestingly, AmphiCASP-3/7 is functionally closer to vertebrate caspase-7, as shown by substrate specificity both in vitro and in MCF7 cells. Our phylogenetic and functional data help in drawing the evolutionary history of caspases, and illustrates an example of acquisition in vertebrates of novel functional properties after gene duplication.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis / genetics*
  • Caspase 3
  • Caspase 7
  • Caspases / deficiency
  • Caspases / genetics
  • Caspases / isolation & purification*
  • Chordata, Nonvertebrate / embryology
  • Chordata, Nonvertebrate / enzymology*
  • Chordata, Nonvertebrate / growth & development
  • DNA, Complementary / analysis
  • DNA, Complementary / genetics
  • Embryo, Mammalian / cytology
  • Embryo, Mammalian / embryology
  • Embryo, Mammalian / enzymology
  • Embryo, Nonmammalian
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Female
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Enzymologic / physiology
  • Humans
  • Larva / cytology
  • Larva / enzymology
  • Larva / growth & development
  • Male
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Phenotype
  • Phylogeny
  • Sequence Homology, Amino Acid
  • Sequence Homology, Nucleic Acid
  • Tumor Cells, Cultured


  • DNA, Complementary
  • CASP3 protein, human
  • CASP7 protein, human
  • Caspase 3
  • Caspase 7
  • Caspases

Associated data

  • GENBANK/AF412335