Background: Biologists are gaining an increased understanding of the genetic bases of phenotypic change during evolution. Nevertheless, the origins of phenotypes mediated by novel protein-protein interactions remain largely undocumented.
Methodology/principle findings: Here we analyze the evolution of opsin visual pigment proteins from the genomes of early branching animals, including a new class of opsins from Cnidaria. We combine these data with existing knowledge of the molecular basis of opsin function in a rigorous phylogenetic framework. We identify adaptive amino acid substitutions in duplicated opsin genes that correlate with a diversification of physiological pathways mediated by different protein-protein interactions.
Conclusions/significance: This study documents how gene duplication events early in the history of animals followed by adaptive structural mutations increased organismal complexity by adding novel protein-protein interactions that underlie different physiological pathways. These pathways are central to vision and other photo-reactive phenotypes in most extant animals. Similar evolutionary processes may have been at work in generating other metazoan sensory systems and other physiological processes mediated by signal transduction.