Background: The cytochrome P450 aromatase (CYP19), catalyses the aromatisation of androgens to estrogens, a key mechanism in vertebrate reproductive physiology. A current evolutionary hypothesis suggests that CYP19 gene arose at the origin of vertebrates, given that it has not been found outside this clade. The human CYP19 gene is located in one of the proposed MHC-paralogon regions (HSA15q). At present it is unclear whether this genomic location is ancestral (which would suggest an invertebrate origin for CYP19) or derived (genomic location with no evolutionary meaning). The distinction between these possibilities should help to clarify the timing of the CYP19 emergence and which taxa should be investigated.
Results: Here we determine the "genomic environment" around CYP19 in three vertebrate species Homo sapiens, Tetraodon nigroviridis and Xenopus tropicalis. Paralogy studies and phylogenetic analysis of six gene families suggests that the CYP19 gene region was structured through "en bloc" genomic duplication (as part of the MHC-paralogon formation). Four gene families have specifically duplicated in the vertebrate lineage. Moreover, the mapping location of the different paralogues is consistent with a model of "en bloc" duplication. Furthermore, we also determine that this region has retained the same gene content since the divergence of Actinopterygii and Tetrapods. A single inversion in gene order has taken place, probably in the mammalian lineage. Finally, we describe the first invertebrate CYP19 sequence, from Branchiostoma floridae.
Conclusion: Contrary to previous suggestions, our data indicates an invertebrate origin for the aromatase gene, given the striking conservation pattern in both gene order and gene content, and the presence of aromatase in amphioxus. We propose that CYP19 duplicated in the vertebrate lineage to yield four paralogues, followed by the subsequent loss of all but one gene in vertebrate evolution. Finally, we suggest that agnathans and lophotrocozoan protostomes should be investigated for the presence of aromatase.