Background: It is known that primary sequences of enzymes involved in sterol biosynthesis are well conserved in organisms that produce sterols de novo. However, we provide evidence for a preservation of the corresponding genes in two animals unable to synthesize cholesterol (auxotrophs): Drosophila melanogaster and Caenorhabditis elegans.
Principal findings: We have been able to detect bona fide orthologs of several ERG genes in both organisms using a series of complementary approaches. We have detected strong sequence divergence between the orthologs of the nematode and of the fruitfly; they are also very divergent with respect to the orthologs in organisms able to synthesize sterols de novo (prototrophs). Interestingly, the orthologs in both the nematode and the fruitfly are still under selective pressure. It is possible that these genes, which are not involved in cholesterol synthesis anymore, have been recruited to perform different new functions. We propose a more parsimonious way to explain their accelerated evolution and subsequent stabilization. The products of ERG genes in prototrophs might be involved in several biological roles, in addition to sterol synthesis. In the case of the nematode and the fruitfly, the relevant genes would have lost their ancestral function in cholesterogenesis but would have retained the other function(s), which keep them under pressure.
Conclusions: By exploiting microarray data we have noticed a strong expressional correlation between the orthologs of ERG24 and ERG25 in D. melanogaster and genes encoding factors involved in intracellular protein trafficking and folding and with Start1 involved in ecdysteroid synthesis. These potential functional connections are worth being explored not only in Drosophila, but also in Caenorhabditis as well as in sterol prototrophs.