Amino acid composition in endothermic vertebrates is biased in the same direction as in thermophilic prokaryotes

BMC Evol Biol. 2010 Aug 31;10:263. doi: 10.1186/1471-2148-10-263.


Background: Among bacteria and archaea, amino acid usage is correlated with habitat temperatures. In particular, protein surfaces in species thriving at higher temperatures appear to be enriched in amino acids that stabilize protein structure and depleted in amino acids that decrease thermostability. Does this observation reflect a causal relationship, or could the apparent trend be caused by phylogenetic relatedness among sampled organisms living at different temperatures? And do proteins from endothermic and exothermic vertebrates show similar differences?

Results: We find that the observed correlations between the frequencies of individual amino acids and prokaryotic habitat temperature are strongly influenced by evolutionary relatedness between the species analysed; however, a proteome-wide bias towards increased thermostability remains after controlling for phylogeny. Do eukaryotes show similar effects of thermal adaptation? A small shift of amino acid usage in the expected direction is observed in endothermic ('warm-blooded') mammals and chicken compared to ectothermic ('cold-blooded') vertebrates with lower body temperatures; this shift is not simply explained by nucleotide usage biases.

Conclusion: Protein homologs operating at different temperatures have different amino acid composition, both in prokaryotes and in vertebrates. Thus, during the transition from ectothermic to endothermic life styles, the ancestors of mammals and of birds may have experienced weak genome-wide positive selection to increase the thermostability of their proteins.

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acids / chemistry*
  • Animals
  • Body Temperature
  • Phylogeny
  • Prokaryotic Cells / metabolism*
  • Vertebrates / classification
  • Vertebrates / metabolism*


  • Amino Acids