The evolution of farnesoid X, vitamin D, and pregnane X receptors: insights from the green-spotted pufferfish (Tetraodon nigriviridis) and other non-mammalian species

BMC Biochem. 2011 Feb 3;12:5. doi: 10.1186/1471-2091-12-5.


Background: The farnesoid X receptor (FXR), pregnane X receptor (PXR), and vitamin D receptor (VDR) are three closely related nuclear hormone receptors in the NR1H and 1I subfamilies that share the property of being activated by bile salts. Bile salts vary significantly in structure across vertebrate species, suggesting that receptors binding these molecules may show adaptive evolutionary changes in response. We have previously shown that FXRs from the sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) and zebrafish (Danio rerio) are activated by planar bile alcohols found in these two species. In this report, we characterize FXR, PXR, and VDR from the green-spotted pufferfish (Tetraodon nigriviridis), an actinopterygian fish that unlike the zebrafish has a bile salt profile similar to humans. We utilize homology modelling, docking, and pharmacophore studies to understand the structural features of the Tetraodon receptors.

Results: Tetraodon FXR has a ligand selectivity profile very similar to human FXR, with strong activation by the synthetic ligand GW4064 and by the primary bile acid chenodeoxycholic acid. Homology modelling and docking studies suggest a ligand-binding pocket architecture more similar to human and rat FXRs than to lamprey or zebrafish FXRs. Tetraodon PXR was activated by a variety of bile acids and steroids, although not by the larger synthetic ligands that activate human PXR such as rifampicin. Homology modelling predicts a larger ligand-binding cavity than zebrafish PXR. We also demonstrate that VDRs from the pufferfish and Japanese medaka were activated by small secondary bile acids such as lithocholic acid, whereas the African clawed frog VDR was not.

Conclusions: Our studies provide further evidence of the relationship between both FXR, PXR, and VDR ligand selectivity and cross-species variation in bile salt profiles. Zebrafish and green-spotted pufferfish provide a clear contrast in having markedly different primary bile salt profiles (planar bile alcohols for zebrafish and sterically bent bile acids for the pufferfish) and receptor selectivity that matches these differences in endogenous ligands. Our observations to date present an integrated picture of the co-evolution of bile salt structure and changes in the binding pockets of three nuclear hormone receptors across the species studied.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bile Acids and Salts / metabolism
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Humans
  • Ligands
  • Mice
  • Models, Molecular
  • Pregnane X Receptor
  • Protein Interaction Domains and Motifs
  • Rats
  • Receptors, Calcitriol / genetics
  • Receptors, Calcitriol / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Cytoplasmic and Nuclear / genetics
  • Receptors, Cytoplasmic and Nuclear / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Steroid / genetics*
  • Receptors, Steroid / metabolism
  • Species Specificity
  • Structure-Activity Relationship
  • Tetraodontiformes
  • Zebrafish


  • Bile Acids and Salts
  • Ligands
  • Pregnane X Receptor
  • Receptors, Calcitriol
  • Receptors, Cytoplasmic and Nuclear
  • Receptors, Steroid
  • farnesoid X-activated receptor