Background: G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) constitute a large family of integral transmembrane receptor proteins that play a central role in signal transduction in eukaryotes. The genome of the protochordate Ciona intestinalis has a compact size with an ancestral complement of many diversified gene families of vertebrates and is a good model system for studying protochordate to vertebrate diversification. An analysis of the Ciona repertoire of GPCRs from a comparative genomic perspective provides insight into the evolutionary origins of the GPCR signalling system in vertebrates.
Results: We have identified 169 gene products in the Ciona genome that code for putative GPCRs. Phylogenetic analyses reveal that Ciona GPCRs have homologous representatives from the five major GRAFS (Glutamate, Rhodopsin, Adhesion, Frizzled and Secretin) families concomitant with other vertebrate GPCR repertoires. Nearly 39% of Ciona GPCRs have unambiguous orthologs of vertebrate GPCR families, as defined for the human, mouse, puffer fish and chicken genomes. The Rhodopsin family accounts for ~68% of the Ciona GPCR repertoire wherein the LGR-like subfamily exhibits a lineage specific gene expansion of a group of receptors that possess a novel domain organisation hitherto unobserved in metazoan genomes.
Conclusion: Comparison of GPCRs in Ciona to that in human reveals a high level of orthology of a protochordate repertoire with that of vertebrate GPCRs. Our studies suggest that the ascidians contain the basic ancestral complement of vertebrate GPCR genes. This is evident at the subfamily level comparisons since Ciona GPCR sequences are significantly analogous to vertebrate GPCR subfamilies even while exhibiting Ciona specific genes. Our analysis provides a framework to perform future experimental and comparative studies to understand the roles of the ancestral chordate versions of GPCRs that predated the divergence of the urochordates and the vertebrates.