Background: Lafora disease (LD) is a fatal autosomal recessive neurodegenerative disease. A hallmark of LD is cytoplasmic accumulation of insoluble glucans, called Lafora bodies (LBs). Mutations in the gene encoding the phosphatase laforin account for approximately 50% of LD cases, and this gene is conserved in all vertebrates. We recently demonstrated that laforin is the founding member of a unique class of phosphatases that dephosphorylate glucans.
Results: Herein, we identify laforin orthologs in a protist and two invertebrate genomes, and report that laforin is absent in the vast majority of protozoan genomes and it is lacking in all other invertebrate genomes sequenced to date. We biochemically characterized recombinant proteins from the sea anemone Nematostella vectensis and the amphioxus Branchiostoma floridae to demonstrate that they are laforin orthologs. We demonstrate that the laforin gene has a unique evolutionary lineage; it is conserved in all vertebrates, a subclass of protists that metabolize insoluble glucans resembling LBs, and two invertebrates. We analyzed the intron-exon boundaries of the laforin genes in each organism and determine, based on recently published reports describing rates of molecular evolution in Branchiostoma and Nematostella, that the conservation of laforin is linked to the molecular rate of evolution and the glucan metabolism of an organism.
Conclusion: Our results alter the existing view of glucan phosphorylation/dephosphorylation and strongly suggest that glucan phosphorylation is a multi-Kingdom regulatory mechanism, encompassing at least some invertebrates. These results establish boundaries concerning which organisms contain laforin. Laforin is conserved in all vertebrates, it has been lost in the vast majority of lower organisms, and yet it is an ancient gene that is conserved in a subset of protists and invertebrates that have undergone slower rates of molecular evolution and/or metabolize a carbohydrate similar to LBs. Thus, the laforin gene holds a unique place in evolutionary biology and has yielded insights into glucan metabolism and the molecular etiology of Lafora disease.