Evolution of hormone selectivity in glucocorticoid and mineralocorticoid receptors

J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 2013 Sep;137:57-70. doi: 10.1016/j.jsbmb.2013.07.009. Epub 2013 Jul 29.


Mineralocorticoid receptors (MR) and glucocorticoid receptors (GR) are descended from an ancestral corticoid receptor (CR). To date, the earliest CR have been found in lamprey and hagfish, two jawless fish (cyclostomes) that evolved at the base of the vertebrate line. Lamprey CR has both MR and GR activity. Distinct orthologs of the GR and MR first appear in skates and sharks, which are cartilaginous fishes (Chondrichthyes). Aldosterone, the physiological mineralocorticoid in terrestrial vertebrates, first appears in lobe-finned fish, such as lungfish and coelacanth, forerunners of terrestrial vertebrates, but not in sharks, skates or ray-finned fish. Skate MR are transcriptionally activated by glucocorticoids, such as corticosterone and cortisol, as well as by mineralocorticoids such as deoxycorticosterone and (experimentally) aldosterone; skate GR have low affinity for all human corticosteroids and 1α-OH-corticosterone, which has been proposed to be biologically active glucocorticoid. In fish, cortisol is both physiological mineralocorticoid and glucocorticoid; in terrestrial vertebrates, cortisol or corticosterone are the physiological glucocorticoids acting through GR, and aldosterone via MR as the physiologic mineralocorticoid. MR have equally high affinity for cortisol, corticosterone and progesterone. We review this evolutionary process through an analysis of changes in sequence and structure of vertebrate GR and MR, identifying changes in these receptors in skates and lobe-fined fish important in allowing aldosterone to act as an agonist at epithelial MR and glucocorticoid specificity for GR. hMR and hGR have lost a key contact between helix 3 and helix 5 that was present in their common ancestor. A serine that is diagnostic for vertebrate MR, and absent in terrestrial and fish GR, is present in lamprey CR, skate MR and GR, but not in coelacanth GR, marking the transition of the GR from MR ancestor. Based on the response of the CR and skate MR and GR to corticosteroids, we conclude that the mechanism(s) for selectivity of GR for cortisol and corticosterone and the specificity of aldosterone for MR are incompletely understood. This article is part of a Special Issue entitled 'CSR 2013'.

Keywords: Coelacanths; Corticosteroid receptor evolution; Glucocorticoid receptor; Helix 3–helix 5 contact; Lamprey; Mineralocorticoid receptor; Sharks.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aldosterone / metabolism*
  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Corticosterone / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / metabolism*
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Phylogeny
  • Progesterone / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid / chemistry
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid / genetics
  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid / metabolism*
  • Receptors, Mineralocorticoid / chemistry
  • Receptors, Mineralocorticoid / genetics
  • Receptors, Mineralocorticoid / metabolism*
  • Sequence Homology, Amino Acid
  • Signal Transduction
  • Vertebrates / classification


  • Receptors, Glucocorticoid
  • Receptors, Mineralocorticoid
  • Aldosterone
  • Progesterone
  • Corticosterone
  • Hydrocortisone