Beta-catenin functions as a cytoskeletal linker protein in cadherin-mediated adhesion and as a signal mediator in wnt-signal transduction pathways. We use a novel integrative approach, combining evolutionary, genomic, and three-dimensional structural data to analyze and trace the structural and functional evolution of beta-catenin genes. This approach also enabled us to examine the effects of gene duplication on the structure and function of beta-catenin genes in Drosophila, C. elegans, and vertebrates. By sampling a large number of different taxa, we identified both ancestral and derived motifs and residues within the different regions of the beta-catenin proteins. Projecting amino acid substitutions onto the three- dimensional structure established for mouse beta-catenin, we identified specific domains that exhibit loss and gain of selective constraints during beta catenin evolution. Structural changes, changes in the amino acid substitution rate, and the appearance of novel functional domains in beta-catenin can be mapped to specific branches on the metazoan tree. Together, our analyses suggest that a single, beta-catenin gene fulfilled both adhesion and signaling functions in the last common ancestor of metazoans some 700 million years ago. In addition, gene duplications facilitated the evolution of beta-catenins with novel functions and allowed the evolution of multiple, single-function proteins (cell adhesion or wnt-signaling) from the ancestral, dual-function protein. Integrative methods such as those we have applied here, utilizing the 'natural experiments' present in animal diversity, can be employed to identify novel and shared functional motifs and residues in virtually any protein among the proteomes of model systems and humans.
Copyright 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.