Rapid birth-death evolution specific to xenobiotic cytochrome P450 genes in vertebrates

PLoS Genet. 2007 May 11;3(5):e67. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.0030067. Epub 2007 Mar 14.


Genes vary greatly in their long-term phylogenetic stability and there exists no general explanation for these differences. The cytochrome P450 (CYP450) gene superfamily is well suited to investigating this problem because it is large and well studied, and it includes both stable and unstable genes. CYP450 genes encode oxidase enzymes that function in metabolism of endogenous small molecules and in detoxification of xenobiotic compounds. Both types of enzymes have been intensively studied. My analysis of ten nearly complete vertebrate genomes indicates that each genome contains 50-80 CYP450 genes, which are about evenly divided between phylogenetically stable and unstable genes. The stable genes are characterized by few or no gene duplications or losses in species ranging from bony fish to mammals, whereas unstable genes are characterized by frequent gene duplications and losses (birth-death evolution) even among closely related species. All of the CYP450 genes that encode enzymes with known endogenous substrates are phylogenetically stable. In contrast, most of the unstable genes encode enzymes that function as xenobiotic detoxifiers. Nearly all unstable CYP450 genes in the mouse and human genomes reside in a few dense gene clusters, forming unstable gene islands that arose by recurrent local gene duplication. Evidence for positive selection in amino acid sequence is restricted to these unstable CYP450 genes, and sites of selection are associated with substrate-binding regions in the protein structure. These results can be explained by a general model in which phylogenetically stable genes have core functions in development and physiology, whereas unstable genes have accessory functions associated with unstable environmental interactions such as toxin and pathogen exposure. Unstable gene islands in vertebrates share some functional properties with bacterial genomic islands, though they arise by local gene duplication rather than horizontal gene transfer.

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Cluster Analysis
  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme System / chemistry
  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme System / genetics*
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Gene Duplication
  • Genomic Instability
  • Humans
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Macaca / genetics
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Phylogeny
  • Selection, Genetic
  • Synteny
  • Vertebrates / genetics*
  • Xenobiotics / metabolism*


  • Xenobiotics
  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme System

Associated data

  • PDB/1OG5