Even though chitin is one of the most abundant biopolymers in nature, current knowledge on chitin formation is largely based only on data from fungi and insects. This study reveals unanticipated broad taxonomic distribution and extensive diversification of chitin synthases (CSs) in Metazoa, shedding new light on the relevance of chitin in animals and suggesting unforeseen complexity of chitin synthesis in many groups. We uncovered robust orthologs to insect type CSs in several representatives of deuterostomes, which generally are not thought to possess chitin. This suggests a broader distribution and function of chitin in this branch of the animal kingdom. We characterize a new CS type present not only in basal metazoans such as sponges and cnidarians but also in several bilaterian representatives. The most extensive diversification of CSs took place during emergence of lophotrochozoans, the third large group of protostomes next to arthropods and nematodes, resulting in coexistence of up to ten CS paralogs in molluscs. Independent fusion to different kinds of myosin motor domains in fungi and lophotrochozoans points toward high relevance of CS interaction with the cytoskeleton for fine-tuned chitin secretion. Given the fundamental role that chitin plays in the morphology of many animals, the here presented CS diversification reveals many evolutionary complexities. Our findings strongly suggest a very broad and multifarious occurrence of chitin and question an ancestral role as cuticular component. The molecular mechanisms underlying regulation of animal chitin synthesis are most likely far more complex and diverse than existing data from insects suggest.
Keywords: Lophotrochozoa; Metazoa; chitin synthase; evolution; myosin motor domain.