On the evolutionary origin of eukaryotic DNA methyltransferases and Dnmt2

PLoS One. 2011;6(11):e28104. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0028104. Epub 2011 Nov 30.


The Dnmt2 enzymes show strong amino acid sequence similarity with eukaryotic and prokaryotic DNA-(cytosine C5)-methyltransferases. Yet, Dnmt2 enzymes from several species were shown to methylate tRNA-Asp and had been proposed that eukaryotic DNA methyltransferases evolved from a Dnmt2-like tRNA methyltransferase ancestor [Goll et al., 2006, Science, 311, 395-8]. It was the aim of this study to investigate if this hypothesis could be supported by evidence from sequence alignments. We present phylogenetic analyses based on sequence alignments of the methyltransferase catalytic domains of more than 2300 eukaryotic and prokaryotic DNA-(cytosine C5)-methyltransferases and analyzed the distribution of DNA methyltransferases in eukaryotic species. The Dnmt2 homologues were reliably identified by an additional conserved CFT motif next to motif IX. All DNA methyltransferases and Dnmt2 enzymes were clearly separated from other RNA-(cytosine-C5)-methyltransferases. Our sequence alignments and phylogenetic analyses indicate that the last universal eukaryotic ancestor contained at least one member of the Dnmt1, Dnmt2 and Dnmt3 families of enzymes and additional RNA methyltransferases. The similarity of Dnmt2 enzymes with DNA methyltransferases and absence of similarity with RNA methyltransferases combined with their strong RNA methylation activity suggest that the ancestor of Dnmt2 was a DNA methyltransferase and an early Dnmt2 enzyme changed its substrate preference to tRNA. There is no phylogenetic evidence that Dnmt2 was the precursor of eukaryotic Dnmts. Most likely, the eukaryotic Dnmt1 and Dnmt3 families of DNA methyltransferases had an independent origin in the prokaryotic DNA methyltransferase sequence space.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Consensus Sequence
  • Conserved Sequence / genetics
  • DNA (Cytosine-5-)-Methyltransferases / chemistry
  • DNA (Cytosine-5-)-Methyltransferases / genetics*
  • Eukaryota / enzymology*
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Humans
  • Models, Genetic
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Phylogeny
  • Sequence Alignment
  • Sequence Homology, Amino Acid
  • Species Specificity


  • DNA (Cytosine-5-)-Methyltransferases