Background: The ferlin gene family possesses a rare and identifying feature consisting of multiple tandem C2 domains and a C-terminal transmembrane domain. Much currently remains unknown about the fundamental function of this gene family, however, mutations in its two most well-characterised members, dysferlin and otoferlin, have been implicated in human disease. The availability of genome sequences from a wide range of species makes it possible to explore the evolution of the ferlin family, providing contextual insight into characteristic features that define the ferlin gene family in its present form in humans.
Results: Ferlin genes were detected from all species of representative phyla, with two ferlin subgroups partitioned within the ferlin phylogenetic tree based on the presence or absence of a DysF domain. Invertebrates generally possessed two ferlin genes (one with DysF and one without), with six ferlin genes in most vertebrates (three DysF, three non-DysF). Expansion of the ferlin gene family is evident between the divergence of lamprey (jawless vertebrates) and shark (cartilaginous fish). Common to almost all ferlins is an N-terminal C2-FerI-C2 sandwich, a FerB motif, and two C-terminal C2 domains (C2E and C2F) adjacent to the transmembrane domain. Preservation of these structural elements throughout eukaryotic evolution suggests a fundamental role of these motifs for ferlin function. In contrast, DysF, C2DE, and FerA are optional, giving rise to subtle differences in domain topologies of ferlin genes. Despite conservation of multiple C2 domains in all ferlins, the C-terminal C2 domains (C2E and C2F) displayed higher sequence conservation and greater conservation of putative calcium binding residues across paralogs and orthologs. Interestingly, the two most studied non-mammalian ferlins (Fer-1 and Misfire) in model organisms C. elegans and D. melanogaster, present as outgroups in the phylogenetic analysis, with results suggesting reproduction-related divergence and specialization of species-specific functions within their genus.
Conclusions: Our phylogenetic studies provide evolutionary insight into the ferlin gene family. We highlight the existence of ferlin-like proteins throughout eukaryotic evolution, from unicellular phytoplankton and apicomplexan parasites, through to humans. We characterise the preservation of ferlin structural motifs, not only of C2 domains, but also the more poorly characterised ferlin-specific motifs representing the DysF, FerA and FerB domains. Our data suggest an ancient role of ferlin proteins, with lessons from vertebrate biology and human disease suggesting a role relating to vesicle fusion and plasma membrane specialization.