Background: Guanylyl cyclases (GCs) are responsible for the production of the secondary messenger cyclic guanosine monophosphate, which plays important roles in a variety of physiological responses such as vision, olfaction, muscle contraction, homeostatic regulation, cardiovascular and nervous function. There are two types of GCs in animals, soluble (sGCs) which are found ubiquitously in cell cytoplasm, and receptor (rGC) forms which span cell membranes. The complete genomes of several vertebrate and invertebrate species are now available. These data provide a platform to investigate the evolution of GCs across a diverse range of animal phyla.
Results: In this analysis we located GC genes from a broad spectrum of vertebrate and invertebrate animals and reconstructed molecular phylogenies for both sGC and rGC proteins. The most notable features of the resulting phylogenies are the number of lineage specific rGC and sGC expansions that have occurred during metazoan evolution. Among these expansions is a large nematode specific rGC clade comprising 21 genes in C. elegans alone; a vertebrate specific expansion in the natriuretic receptors GC-A and GC-B; a vertebrate specific expansion in the guanylyl GC-C receptors, an echinoderm specific expansion in the sperm rGC genes and a nematode specific sGC clade. Our phylogenetic reconstruction also shows the existence of a basal group of nitric oxide ( NO) insensitive insect and nematode sGCs which are regulated by O(2). This suggests that the primordial eukaryotes probably utilized sGC as an O(2) sensor, with the ligand specificity of sGC later switching to NO which provides a very effective local cell-to-cell signalling system. Phylogenetic analysis of the sGC and bacterial heme nitric oxide/oxygen binding protein domain supports the hypothesis that this domain originated from a cyanobacterial source.
Conclusion: The most salient feature of our phylogenies is the number of lineage specific expansions, which have occurred within the GC gene family during metazoan evolution. Our phylogenetic analyses reveal that the rGC and sGC multi-domain proteins evolved early in eumetazoan evolution. Subsequent gene duplications, tissue specific expression patterns and lineage specific expansions resulted in the evolution of new networks of interaction and new biological functions associated with the maintenance of organismal complexity and homeostasis.