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Logo of gbeAboutAuthor GuidelinesEditorial BoardGenome Biology and Evolution
Genome Biol Evol. 2012; 4(12): 1331–1338.
Published online 2012 November 29. doi:  10.1093/gbe/evs111
PMCID: PMC3542562

Birth-and-Death of KLK3 and KLK2 in Primates: Evolution Driven by Reproductive Biology

Patrícia Isabel Marques,1,2,3 Rui Bernardino,4 Teresa Fernandes,4 NISC Comparative Sequencing Program,5,6 Eric D. Green,5 Belen Hurle,5 Victor Quesada,2,* and Susana Seixas1,*


The kallikrein (KLK) gene family comprises the largest uninterrupted locus of serine proteases in the human genome and represents a notable case for studying the evolutionary fate of duplicated genes. In primates, a recent duplication event gave rise to KLK2 and KLK3, both encoding essential proteins for the cascade of seminal plasma liquefaction. We reconstructed the evolutionary history of KLK2 and KLK3 by comparative analysis of the orthologous sequences from 22 primate species, calculated dN/dS ratios, and addressed the hypothesis of coevolution with their substrates, the semenogelins (SEMG1 and SEMG2). Our findings support the placement of the KLK2–KLK3 duplication in the Catarrhini ancestor and unveil the frequent loss of KLK2 throughout primate evolution by different genomic mechanisms, including unequal crossing-over, deletions, and pseudogenization. We provide evidences for an adaptive evolution of KLK3 toward an expanded enzymatic spectrum, with an effect on the hydrolysis of semen coagulum. Furthermore, we found associations between mating system, the number of SEMG repeat units, and the number of functional KLK2 and KLK3, suggesting complex evolutionary dynamics shaped by reproductive biology.

Keywords: serine proteases, adaptive evolution, mating system, semen coagulation, semenogelins

The birth-and-death of genes has a significant impact in genome evolution, particularly in gene families involved in physiological traits such as sensory systems, immunity, and reproduction (Zhang 2003; Demuth and Hahn 2009). According to this model, new genes are generated by duplication, and although some are maintained in the genome (acquiring novel or altered functions), others are disrupted or become nonfunctional through a variety of deleterious mechanisms (Nei and Rooney 2005; Kaessmann 2010). In this context of gene gain, diversification, and loss, the kallikrein (KLK) cluster, the largest locus in the human genome of phylogenetically related serine proteases (Yousef and Diamandis 2001), represents a remarkable case for the study of the evolutionary fate of duplicates. In humans, the KLK cluster spans over 265 kb on chromosome 19q13.4 and includes 15 genes ranging from 4.4 to 10.5 kb, most of them sharing a common gene structure with five coding exons (Yousef and Diamandis 2001; Lundwall and Brattsand 2008). KLKs act mainly as trypsin or chymotrypsin-like proteases in a number of biological processes such as skin desquamation, semen liquefaction, neuroplasticity, and regulation of blood pressure (Emami and Diamandis 2007). In primates, a recent gene duplication gave rise to two kallikreins, KLK2 and KLK3 (encoding prostate-specific antigen), which play a crucial role in the proteolytic cascade of seminal plasma liquefaction (Lundwall and Brattsand 2008). Briefly, upon ejaculation, the epididymal fluid is mixed with prostate and seminal vesicles secretions containing semenogelins (SEMG1 and SEMG2) to form a coagulum that entraps spermatozoa. Later, these spermatozoa are released with the hydrolysis of SEMGs by KLK3 and KLK2. In addition, KLK2 is also thought to activate KLK3 (Lovgren et al. 1999; Lundwall and Brattsand 2008). Previous findings suggest that primate KLK2 and KLK3 (Clark and Swanson 2005), along with SEMGs (Jensen-Seaman and Li 2003; Dorus et al. 2004; Hurle et al. 2007), may be targets of natural selection and could provide an important example of birth-and-death evolution. Here, we reconstruct the evolutionary history of KLK2 and KLK3 in primates and test the hypothesis of their coevolution with SEMGs as a possible example of evolution driven by male reproductive biology.

KLK2 and KLK3 Gains and Losses

To better understand the evolutionary dynamics of KLK2 and KLK3 genes in primates, we sequenced and/or annotated the orthologous genomic segments spanning these genes in a total of 22 primate species (supplementary table S1, Supplementary Material online). We confirmed the presence of KLK2 and KLK3 in all Catarrhini, except for Colobus guereza, Gorilla gorilla, and Nomascus leucogenys, and the presence of a single KLK2 ortholog sequence in Platyrrhini and Strepsirrhini (fig. 1A). This result reinforces the hypothesis of a KLK3 origin by KLK2 duplication after the Catarrhini split approximately 42 million years ago (Olsson et al. 2004; Valtonen-Andre et al. 2005; Pavlopoulou et al. 2010). Notably, we identified two KLK3KLK2 fusions in G. gorilla and N. leucogenys yielding single chimeric KLK genes (cKLK) (supplementary fig. S1A and S1B, Supplementary Material online). We located the breaking point in both species to a few bases in intron IV, in the vicinity of a LINE2 element common to KLK2 and KLK3 sequences (G. gorilla IVS4+622_781 and N. leucogenys IVS4+787_1026; fig. 1B). These genomic rearrangements were confirmed by direct sequencing of three additional G. gorilla individuals and five Hylobatidae samples, indicating a likely fixation of cKLK in these taxa (supplementary fig. S1C, Supplementary Material online). In both cases, the first four exons of cKLK are orthologous to KLK3, whereas the last exon is more similar to KLK2 (fig. 1B). At the protein level, these genomic rearrangements account only for minor amino acid replacements relative to the expected KLK3 sequence (S231P, R239K, S241A, L242V, and V258A). Because these replacements are not predicted to alter protein structure or function, cKLK is likely a functional KLK3-like gene. Our findings confirm previous reports, which suggested the partial loss of KLK2 in G. gorilla and Hylobates sp. (Clark and Swanson 2005). On the other hand, a detailed analysis of the alignments of C. guereza genomic sequences with the Homo sapiens reference genome showed the complete loss of KLK2 and KLK3 in this species, possibly by two deletion events (supplementary fig. S2, Supplementary Material online). In Cercopithecoidea, we identified several loss-of-function events in KLK2 through a variety of deleterious mechanisms (table 1). These include a premature stop codon in Macaca mulatta (R109X) and a frameshift mutation (L171fsX181) and two nonsynonymous substitutions (G51R and L54P) in M. fuscata. The mutation of the KLK2 catalytic triad (D120A) previously described in M. mulatta (Clark and Swanson 2005) was not observed, and no evidence for the accumulation of deleterious mutations in M. fascicularis was found. In Papio anubis, we identified a frameshift mutation leading to a 75-codon longer open reading frame (V247fsX337), which is unlikely to be translated into a KLK2 (supplementary fig. S3, Supplementary Material online). Additional examples of KLK2 loss were observed in Platyrrhini, either by gene deletion or disruption (fig. 1A and table 1). In this taxon, the single example of KLK2 loss by deletion was found in Aotus nancymaae, whereas several deleterious mutations were detected in Callicebus moloch, Callithrix jacchus, and Saguinus oedipus. In Cal. moloch, these mutations affect the starting codon (ATG-TTG), alter the activation site (I25T), and produce a premature stop codon (C184fsX189). In Callithrix jacchus, we identified a disrupted start codon (ATG-ATA) and a premature stop codon (W47X). In S. oedipus, a sister species of Callithrix jacchus, we have confirmed that KLK2 is a pseudogene due to the accumulation of several mutations predicted to impair the translation of a functional serine protease (Olsson et al. 2004). All these species have an alternative starting codon 18 bp upstream of the consensus site; however, this is not expected to lead to an active KLK2 due to the occurrence of additional damaging mutations (supplementary fig. S3, Supplementary Material online, and table 1). In Strepsirrhini, no deleterious mutations were detected, suggesting a functional KLK2 (fig. 1A and supplementary fig. S3, Supplementary Material online).

Fig. 1.
Phylogenetic analysis of KLK2 and KLK3 in primates. (A) Phylogenetic tree showing primate divergence times (Hedges et al. 2006) and functional status of KLK2 and KLK3. The criteria to define a nonfunctional KLK gene were the identification of at least ...
Table 1
Identified KLK2 Deleterious Mutations

KLK2 and KLK3 Phylogenetic Analysis

To address the extent of the selective pressures exerted on KLK2 and KLK3, we calculated dN/dS (ω; dS—synonymous substitution rate and dN—nonsynonymous substitution rate) ratios under alternative models of gene evolution. To this end, we performed a series of branch models to test whether KLK2 and KLK3 experienced different selective pressures during primate evolution. First, we estimated a single ω for the entire phylogeny (one-ratio model), in which we assumed no differentiation in KLK2 and KLK3 selective constrains. The observed ω value below 1 (ωKLK = 0.54) pointed out to an overall conservation of KLK2 and KLK3 (table 2). Then, to examine whether the two paralogs were subjected to different selective pressures, we applied a different model (two-ratio model) considering two branches within the phylogeny comprising either the KLK2 or KLK3 clades. Both ω values were below 1 (ωKLK2 = 0.55; ωKLK3 = 0.53) (table 2) and did not differ from the previous reported model (−2Δl = 0.06; P > 0.05). Given the evidences for KLK2 pseudogenization in several primate species, we anticipated a contrast in the relaxation of selective constraints in pseudogenes and their functional orthologs. In our models, we considered this hypothesis by subdividing KLK2 clade into functional and pseudogenized (pKLK2). This model (three-ratio model) had a significant higher likelihood and an improved fit to KLK2 and KLK3 evolution (−2Δl = 9, P < 0.01). Furthermore, ω estimates corroborated the neutral evolution of KLK2 pseudogenes (ωpKLK2 = 1.16), with a possible relaxation of selective constrains after the duplication event (ωKLK2 = 0.48; ωKLK3 = 0.53; table 2). Therefore, to test whether KLK3 had been subjected to different selective pressures following the duplication, the ancestral KLK3 branch (ancKLK3) was regarded as an independent clade. The last model (four-ratio model) provided the best fit to the evolutionary history of KLK2 and KLK3 (−2Δl = 4.10, P < 0.05). According to the ω values estimated, an episode of reduced selective constrains occurred immediately after the duplication event (ωancKLK3 = 0.90); stronger selective pressures are operating at KLK3 and KLK2KLK3 = 0.43; ωKLK2 = 0.47), and a complete release of selective constraints is observed among KLK2 pseudogenes (ωpKLK2 = 1.16; table 2). Importantly, if the ancestral KLK3 experienced brief episodes of adaptive evolution, it is unlikely to produce an ω value greater than 1, because most residues were subjected to strong constrains and only a few were under positive selection. To test the adaptive hypothesis of the ancestral KLK3, we performed a branch-site model, in which branches on the phylogeny are divided a priori into foreground (ancestral KLK3 branch) and background and selective pressures are allowed to vary over sites and branches. Even though the majority of sites are constrained or neutrally evolving, four codon positions (13, 41, 72, and 207) show a footprint of positive selection with posterior probability higher than 85% (table 3). A similar approach was applied to the functional KLK2 and KLK3 data sets using the site models test. In these cases, variable ω ratios among sites were calculated for each gene and neutral and selection models compared (M1 vs. M2 and M7 vs. M8). In both cases, selection models fit significantly better the KLK2 and KLK3 data than neutral models (table 3), and eight (18, 67, 69, 109, 177, 205, 210, and 250) and five (45, 189, 203, 238, and 248) codon positions were identified as being positively selected in KLK2 and KLK3, respectively (table 3).

Table 2
Parameter Estimates and Likelihood Scores under Different Branch Models
Table 3
Model Comparisons of Variable ω Ratios among Sites

To uncover the adaptive impact of the amino acids replacements targeted by positive selection, we mapped the corresponding residues onto three-dimensional models of KLK2 and KLK3. From the eight sites identified for KLK2, amino acids 177 and 210 are located in the catalytic pocket and 109 in the kallikrein loop (fig. 2A). Among KLK3 selected sites, the D207S replacement that occurred shortly after the duplication is located at the base of the substrate-biding pocket (fig. 2B). Noteworthy, D207S altered enzyme activity to a chymotrypsin-like specificity and modified substrate affinity to medium size hydrophobic (tyrosine, leucine, valine, and phenylalanine) or basic residues (arginine, lysine, and histidine) (Debela et al. 2006). On the other hand, KLK2 conserved the aspartate residue at position 207, which is known to confer trypsin-like specificity to kallikrein-related peptidases and to display a strong preference for arginine in substrates (Janssen et al. 2004; Debela et al. 2006; Emami and Diamandis 2007). The findings of KLK3 adaptive evolution and of its expanded enzymatic spectrum on top of the restricted KLK2 spectrum provide strong arguments for a significant impact of KLK3 emergence in the hydrolysis of semen coagulum and in the extensive SEMGs fragmentation as currently seen in humans.

Fig. 2.
Positive selected sites in biologically relevant regions. (A) Human KLK2 three-dimensional model showing amino acid replacements predicted to be under positive selection (Q109, H177, and G210). (B) Human KLK3 three-dimensional model showing D207S substitution ...

Implications of KLK2 and KLK3 Evolution in Primate Reproductive Biology

Primate mating behavior drives the intensity of sperm competition and, with that, the evolution of genes involved in reproduction. Specifically, polyandrous species exhibit physiological traits better adapted for fertilization, like larger testis relative to body size (Harcourt et al. 1981; Clark and Swanson 2005). For SEMGs, a relationship between molecular evolution rates and female promiscuity has been already shown. The SEMGs are highly polymorphic modular proteins, with a number of repeat units varying within and between species. This in turn dictates the degree of crosslinking between SEMGs, which influences the semen coagulum thickness. The correlation is such that the higher the promiscuity of a given species, the higher the likelihood of longer SEMGs, more crosslinking events, and a rigid copulatory plug, possibly influencing the fertilization of a recently inseminated female by rival males (Jensen-Seaman and Li 2003; Dorus et al. 2004; Hurle et al. 2007). Indeed, the number of SEMG repeats shows a significant rank correlation with residual testis size, which is a good proxy for primate mating system (Anderson et al. 2004; Dixson and Anderson 2004; Wlasiuk and Nachman 2010) (fig. 3A and supplementary table S2, Supplementary Material online). Considering the role of KLK2 and KLK3 in the hydrolysis of SEMGs (Rawlings et al. 2012), we tested whether the presence or absence of functional genes correlates with the number of SEMG1 and SEMG2 repeat units. In most cases, active KLK2 and KLK3 are associated with higher repeat numbers and polyandry, whereas the lack of one or both of them is linked to lower repeat numbers and monoandry (fig. 3B and C and supplementary table S2, Supplementary Material online). Interestingly, we also observed a trend for higher KLK numbers with more prominent semen coagulation and increase residual testis size (supplementary fig. S4, Supplementary Material online).

Fig. 3.
Evolution of primate KLK2 and KLK3 related to mating factors. (A) Correlation of residual testis size (Anderson et al. 2004; Dixson and Anderson 2004; Wlasiuk and Nachman 2010) with the combined SEMG repeat units (Jensen-Seaman and Li 2003; Hurle et al. ...

We propose a model in which KLK2 and KLK3 coevolved with SEMGs in a sperm competition-driven process. In a polyandrous species with many SEMG repeats and prominent semen coagulation, the robust and orchestrated activity of KLK2 and KLK3 may be important for sperm release. Conversely, in a monoandrous species with few SEMG repeats, the loss of KLK2 might represent a biological response to maintain a gelatinous coagulum. Here, the loss of KLK2 may not be arbitrary because KLK3 has a larger spectrum of cleavage sites in SEMGs than KLK2 (Rawlings et al. 2012), therefore being more effective in semen coagulum liquefaction.

Overall, our data provide support for the occurrence of an event of gene birth by duplication linked to the origin of KLK3 in a common ancestor of Catarrhini and to an adaptive process associated to the expanded spectrum of KLK3 proteolysis. It further points to multiple events of KLK2 death through different genomic mechanisms: Unequal crossing-over between KLK3 and KLK2 led to the loss of KLK2 and to the rise of a cKLK, whereas large deletions caused the excision of KLK2 and relaxation of selective constraints led to KLK2 pseudogenization. In spite of the proposed specialized role of KLK2 and KLK3 in the cascade of seminal plasma liquefaction, their substrate affinity to arginine and common patterns of expression suggest some level of redundancy for KLK2; however, such an argument would not explain the loss of KLK2 observed in more ancient primate species or the skewed activity of KLK2 in Catarrhini.

Materials and Methods

The genomic sequences from H. sapiens, Pan troglodytes, P. paniscus, G. gorilla, Pongo pygmaeus, M. mulatta, M. fascicularis, and Callithrix jacchus were retrieved from public databases. The genomic sequences from N. leucogenys, M. fuscata, Pap. anubis, Chlorocebus aethiops, C. guereza, Saimiri boliviensis, A. nancymaae, Cal. moloch, Ateles geoffroyi, Eulemur macaco, Lemur catta, and Otolemur garnettii were obtained by Sanger-based shotgun sequencing (supplementary table S1, Supplementary Material online). BAC clones spanning the KLK2–KLK3 genomic fragment were isolated from the following libraries (see, last accessed December 10, 2012), as described (Thomas et al. 2002, 2003): P. troglodytes (CHORI-251), Sai. boliviensis (CHORI-254), Ate. geoffroyi (UC-1), N. leucogenys (CHORI-271), Cal. moloch (LBNL-5), C. guereza (CHORI-272), Pon. pygmaeus (CHORI-253), Pap. anubis (RPCI-41), and Chl. aethiops (CHORI-252). Specifically, each library was screened using pooled sets of oligonucleotide-based probes designed from the established sequence of KLK locus. After isolation and mapping, BACs were shotgun sequenced on an ABI 3130 automated sequencer and subjected to sequence finishing, as described (Blakesley et al. 2004). KLK genes were annotated based on alignments to human RefSeq cDNA and protein sequences with the BATI algorithm (Blast, Annotate, Tune, Iterate) using four Perl scripts—Tbex, BlastSniffer, GeneTuner, and bgmix—available at (last accessed December 10, 2012). Briefly, BATI allows the annotation in the target genome of all orthologs and paralogs from the input set of cDNA and protein sequences. Tbex compares all the input sequences with the target genomic sequence by tblastn. BlastSniffer rebuilds each putative gene from the tblastn hits considering all the possible hit combinations and sets a raw score for each of them. GeneTuner shows the result from the previous step in the context of the template genome allowing the user to define exon/intron boundaries. Finally, bgmix creates a composite file with all the tblastn comparisons and highlights those hits overlapping defined exons. This helps the identification and annotation of novel putative genes that have not been annotated in an iterative process.

The genomic sequences spanning the SEMG1SEMG2 cluster were retrieved from Hurle et al. (2007) with the exception of N. leucogenys and Cal. moloch (AC198263 and AC207864, respectively), which were sequenced according to the methods described earlier for this study.

Maximum-likelihood estimates of dN/dS (ω) were carried out using the codeml program from the software package Phylogenetic Analysis by Maximum Likelihood—PAML version 4.2 (Yang 2007). To run PAML, we first reconstructed a phylogenetic tree using all the sequences except for Hylobates sp. and L. catta whose sequences were incomplete. To carry out a comprehensive analysis of pseudogenes, their sequences were only included after the removal of positions affected by premature stop codons and frameshift mutations. The phylogenetic tree was built using the maximum-likelihood method, implemented in DNAml, from the software package Phylogeny Inference Package (PHYLIP; The tree was consistent with the known primate phylogeny. To test for variable selective pressures among branches, we performed the branch model using either the null model (one ratio) or nested models (two-ratio, three-ratio, and four-ratio models) (Yang 1998; Bielawski and Yang 2003). The values of ω > 1 were considered as evidences of positive selection, the values of ω < 1 were regarded as an indication of purifying selection, and the values of ω ~1 were inferred as neutral. The significance of each nested model was obtained from twice the variation of likelihoods (−2Δl) using a χ2 statistic. To evaluate lineage-specific changes at amino acid sites, we performed the branch-site model for the ancKLK3. This model assumes that the branches on the phylogeny are divided a priori into foreground (ancKLK3) and background (remaining branches in the phylogeny) and allows ω to vary both among sites in the protein and across branches. For the branch-site model (Yang and Nielsen 2002), comparisons with critical χ2 were carried out as described (Zhang et al. 2005). To test for variation in ω between sites of KLK3 and functional KLK2, we used different codon models for each gene alone and compared neutral and selection models: M1–M2 and M7–M8 (Nielsen and Yang 1998; Yang et al. 2000). The Bayes empirical Bayes was used to calculate posterior probabilities of site classes, to identify sites under positive selection for the significant likelihood ratio tests (Yang et al. 2005). KLK3 three-dimensional model (2ZCH.pdb) was retrieved from RCSB PDB Protein Data Bank ( KLK2 three-dimensional model was generated by SwissModel ( using KLK2 and KLK3 human sequences and KLK3 three-dimensional model (2ZCH.pdb) (Schwede et al. 2003).

Statistical analysis was performed by means of t-test, analysis of variance, and Spearman rank correlation.

Supplementary Material

Supplementary tables S1 and S2 and figures S1–S4 are available at Genome Biology and Evolution online (


The authors thank the Lisbon Zoo for their collaboration in providing the primate samples. This work was supported by a fellowship SFRH/BD/68940/2010 from the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) to P.I.M., by POPH-QREN—Promotion of Scientific Employment, by the European Social Fund, and by national funds of the Ministry of Education and Science to P.I.M. and S.S., and in part by the Intramural Research Program of the National Human Genome Research Institute. IPATIMUP (an Associate Laboratory of the Portuguese Ministry of Education and Science) is partially supported by FCT.

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