Exaptation as a Mechanism for Functional Reinforcement of an Animal Pheromone System
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Animal sex pheromone systems often exist as multicomponent signals [1–11] to which chemical cues have been added over evolutionary time. Little is known on why and how additional molecules become recruited and conserved in an already functional pheromone system. Here, we investigated the evolutionary trajectory of a series of 15 kDa proteins—termed persuasins—that were co-opted more recently alongside the ancient sodefrin precursor-like factor (SPF) courtship pheromone system in salamanders [9, 12]. Expression, genomic, and molecular phylogenetic analyses show that persuasins originated from a gene that is expressed as a multi-domain protein in internal organs where it has no pheromone function but underwent gene duplication and neofunctionalization. The subsequent evolution combined domain loss and the introduction of a proteolytic cleavage site in the duplicated gene to give rise to two-domain cysteine rich proteins with structural properties similar to SPF pheromones . An expression shift to the pheromone-producing glands, where expression of persuasins was immediately spatiotemporally synchronized with the already available pheromone system, completed the birth of a new pheromone. Electrostatic forces between members of both protein families likely enhance co-localization and simultaneous activation of different female olfactory neurons, explaining why persuasins immediately had a selective advantage. In line with this, behavioral assays show that persuasins increase female receptivity on their own but also exert a cumulative or synergistic effect in combination with SPF, clearly reinforcing the pheromone system as a whole. Our study reveals molecular remodeling of an existing protein architecture as an evolutionary mechanism for functional reinforcement of animal pheromone systems. Little is known about how additional molecules are recruited to functional pheromone systems. Maex et al. show how a new salamander courtship pheromone, persuasin, was co-opted alongside an ancient pheromone after a gene duplication and shift in expression. Subsequent evolution led the molecule along a pathway that reinforced the existing pheromone.