Background: The rhomboid family of polytopic membrane proteins shows a level of evolutionary conservation unique among membrane proteins. They are present in nearly all the sequenced genomes of archaea, bacteria and eukaryotes, with the exception of several species with small genomes. On the basis of experimental studies with the developmental regulator rhomboid from Drosophila and the AarA protein from the bacterium Providencia stuartii, the rhomboids are thought to be intramembrane serine proteases whose signaling function is conserved in eukaryotes and prokaryotes.
Results: Phylogenetic tree analysis carried out using several independent methods for tree constructions and the corresponding statistical tests suggests that, despite its broad distribution in all three superkingdoms, the rhomboid family was not present in the last universal common ancestor of extant life forms. Instead, we propose that rhomboids evolved in bacteria and have been acquired by archaea and eukaryotes through several independent horizontal gene transfers. In eukaryotes, two distinct, ancient acquisitions apparently gave rise to the two major subfamilies, typified by rhomboid and PARL (presenilins-associated rhomboid-like protein), respectively. Subsequent evolution of the rhomboid family in eukaryotes proceeded by multiple duplications and functional diversification through the addition of extra transmembrane helices and other domains in different orientations relative to the conserved core that harbors the protease activity.
Conclusions: Although the near-universal presence of the rhomboid family in bacteria, archaea and eukaryotes appears to suggest that this protein is part of the heritage of the last universal common ancestor, phylogenetic tree analysis indicates a likely bacterial origin with subsequent dissemination by horizontal gene transfer. This emphasizes the importance of explicit phylogenetic analysis for the reconstruction of ancestral life forms. A hypothetical scenario for the origin of intracellular membrane proteases from membrane transporters is proposed.