Background: The amino acid neurotransmitter GABA is abundant in the central nervous system (CNS) of both invertebrates and vertebrates. Receptors of this neurotransmitter play a key role in important processes such as learning and memory. Yet, little is known about the mode and tempo of evolution of the receptors of this neurotransmitter. Here, we investigate the phylogenetic relationships of GABA receptor subunits across the chordates and detail their mode of evolution among mammals.
Principal findings: Our analyses support two major monophyletic clades: one clade containing GABA(A) receptor alpha, gamma, and epsilon subunits, and another one containing GABA(A) receptor rho, beta, delta, theta, and pi subunits. The presence of GABA receptor subunits from each of the major clades in the Ciona intestinalis genome suggests that these ancestral duplication events occurred before the divergence of urochordates. However, while gene divergence proceeded at similar rates on most receptor subunits, we show that the mammalian-specific subunits theta and epsilon experienced an episode of positive selection and of relaxed constraints, respectively, after the duplication event. Sites putatively under positive selection are placed on a three-dimensional model obtained by homology-modeling.
Conclusions: Our results suggest an early divergence of the GABA receptor subunits, before the split from urochordates. We show that functional changes occurred in the lineages leading to the mammalian-specific subunit theta, and we identify the amino acid sites putatively responsible for the functional divergence. We discuss potential consequences for the evolution of mammals and of their CNS.