Background: Duplicated glucocorticoid receptors (GR) are present in most teleost fish. The evolutionary advantage of retaining two GRs is unclear, as no subtype specific functional traits or physiological roles have been defined. To identify factors driving the retention of duplicate GRs in teleosts, the current study examined GRs in representatives of two basal ray-finned fish taxa that emerged either side of the teleost lineage whole genome duplication event (WGD) event, the acipenseriform, Acipenser ruthenus, (pre-WGD) and the osteoglossimorph, Pantodon buchholzi, (post-WGD).
Results: The study identified a single GR in A. ruthenus (ArGR) and two GRs in P. buchholzi (PbGR1 and PbGR2). Phylogenetic analyses showed that ArGR formed a distinct branch separate from the teleosts GRs. The teleost GR lineage was subdivded into two sublineages, each of which contained one of the two P. buchholzi GRs. ArGR, PbGR1 and PbGR2 all possess the unique 9 amino acid insert between the zinc-fingers of the DNA-binding domain that is present in one of the teleost GR lineages (GR1), but not the other (GR2). A splice variant of PbGR2 produces an isoform that lacked these 9 amino acids (PbGR2b). Cortisol stimulated transactivation activity of ArGR, PbGR2b and PbGR1 in vitro; with PbGR2b and PbGR1, the glucocorticoid 11-deoxycortisol was a more potent agonist than cortisol. The hormone sensitivity of PbGR2b and PbGR1 differed in the transactivation assay, with PbGR2b having lower EC50 values and greater fold induction.
Conclusions: The difference in transactivation activity sensitivity between duplicated GRs of P. buchholzi suggests potential functional differences between the paralogs emerged early in the teleost lineage. Given the pleiotropic nature of GR function in vertebrates, this finding is in accordance with the hypothesis that duplicated GRs were potentially retained through subfunctionalisation followed by gene sharing. A 9 amino acid insert in the DNA-binding domain emerged in basal ray-finned fish GRs. However, the presence of a PbGR2 splice variant that lacks this insert, as well as the loss of the exon encoding these amino acids in the genes encoding for other teleost GR2 suggests the selection of two receptors with different DNA-binding domain structures in teleosts.