Man and the chimaera. Selective versus neutral oxytocin evolution

Adv Exp Med Biol. 1995;395:615-27.


The oxytocin/vasopressin superfamily encompasses vertebrate and invertebrate peptides and therefore the ancestral gene encoding the precursor protein antedates the divergence between the two groups, about 700 million years ago. The preserved nonapeptide pattern indicates that both the precursor structures and the processing enzymatic machinery were greatly conserved to ensure the building of a specific conformation. Substitutions, which may be neutral or selective, occurred in precise positions. Virtually all vertebrate species possess an oxytocin-like and a vasopressin-like peptide so that two evolutionary lineages can be traced. Because a single peptide, vasotocin ([Ile3]-vasopressin or [Arg8]-oxytocin) has been found in the most primitive Cyclostomata, a primordial gene duplication and subsequent mutations are assumed to have given rise to the two lineages. They started with vasotocin and isotocin ([Ser4,Ile8]-oxytocin) in bony fishes and culminated with vasopressin and oxytocin in placental mammals. Mesotocin ([Ile3]-oxytocin), found in lungfishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and marsupials, appears as an evolutionary intermediate. The change from isotocin ([Ser4,Ile8]-oxytocin) into mesotocin ([Ile8]-oxytocin), can be observed in African and Australian lungfishes, species making the transition from bony fishes to land vertebrates. On the other hand the replacement of mesotocin by oxytocin can be detected in marsupials, particularly in the North-American opossum and the Australian Northern bandicoot that have both mesotocin and oxytocin whereas placental mammals possess only oxytocin. The invariability of this peptide in placentals can be explained by receptor-fitting selective pressure. In contrast to bony vertebrates in which neurohypophysial hormones revealed a remarkable structural stability, cartilaginous fishes displayed an unique oxytocin-like hormone evolution with variability and duality. Aside from vasotocin, in the subclass Selachii, rays have glumitocin ([Gln8-oxytocin]) and sharks possess two peptides: aspargtocin ([Asn4-oxytocin]) and valitocin ([Val8-oxytocin]) for the spiny dogfish, asvatocin ([Asn4,Val8]-oxytocin) and phasvatocin ([Phe3,Asn4,Val8]-oxytocin) for the spotted dogfish. In the other subclass Holocephali, the chimaera (ratfish) has oxytocin, the typical hormone of placental mammals. Cartilaginous fishes used urea rather than salts for their osmoregulation and oxytocin-like hormones could have been relieved from osmoregulatory functions and able to accept many neutral variations.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Chimera / genetics*
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Fishes
  • Humans
  • Invertebrates
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Neurophysins / genetics
  • Oxytocin / analogs & derivatives
  • Oxytocin / genetics*
  • Selection, Genetic
  • Sequence Homology, Amino Acid
  • Vertebrates


  • Neurophysins
  • mesotocin
  • Oxytocin
  • isotocin