Curr Biol. Ath.: group Benton

Remote homolog detection places insect chemoreceptors in a cryptic protein superfamily spanning the tree of life

Nathaniel J Himmel 1David Moi 2Richard Benton 3

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Many proteins exist in the so-called “twilight zone” of sequence alignment, where low pairwise sequence identity makes it difficult to determine homology and phylogeny.1,2 As protein tertiary structure is often more conserved,3 recent advances in ab initio protein folding have made structure-based identification of putative homologs feasible.4,5,6 We present a pipeline for the identification and characterization of distant homologs and apply it to 7-transmembrane-domain ion channels (7TMICs), a protein group founded by insect odorant and gustatory receptors. Previous sequence and limited structure-based searches identified putatively related proteins, mainly in other animals and plants.7,8,9,10 However, very few 7TMICs have been identified in non-animal, non-plant taxa. Moreover, these proteins’ remarkable sequence dissimilarity made it uncertain whether disparate 7TMIC types (Gr/Or, Grl, GRL, DUF3537, PHTF, and GrlHz) are homologous or convergent, leaving their evolutionary history unresolved. Our pipeline identified thousands of new 7TMICs in archaea, bacteria, and unicellular eukaryotes. Using graph-based analyses and protein language models to extract family-wide signatures, we demonstrate that 7TMICs have structure and sequence similarity, supporting homology. Through sequence- and structure-based phylogenetics, we classify eukaryotic 7TMICs into two families (Class-A and Class-B), which are the result of a gene duplication predating the split(s) leading to Amorphea (animals, fungi, and allies) and Diaphoretickes (plants and allies). Our work reveals 7TMICs as a cryptic superfamily, with origins close to the evolution of cellular life. More generally, this study serves as a methodological proof of principle for the identification of extremely distant protein homologs.