Species-specific chemosignals, pheromones, regulate social behaviors such as aggression, mating, pup-suckling, territory establishment, and dominance. The identity of these cues remains mostly undetermined and few mammalian pheromones have been identified. Genetically-encoded pheromones are expected to exhibit several different mechanisms for coding 1) diversity, to enable the signaling of multiple behaviors, 2) dynamic regulation, to indicate age and dominance, and 3) species-specificity. Recently, the major urinary proteins (Mups) have been shown to function themselves as genetically-encoded pheromones to regulate species-specific behavior. Mups are multiple highly related proteins expressed in combinatorial patterns that differ between individuals, gender, and age; which are sufficient to fulfill the first two criteria. We have now characterized and fully annotated the mouse Mup gene content in detail. This has enabled us to further analyze the extent of Mup coding diversity and determine their potential to encode species-specific cues.
Our results show that the mouse Mup gene cluster is composed of two subgroups: an older, more divergent class of genes and pseudogenes, and a second class with high sequence identity formed by recent sequential duplications of a single gene/pseudogene pair. Previous work suggests that truncated Mup pseudogenes may encode a family of functional hexapeptides with the potential for pheromone activity. Sequence comparison, however, reveals that they have limited coding potential. Similar analyses of nine other completed genomes find Mup gene expansions in divergent lineages, including those of rat, horse and grey mouse lemur, occurring independently from a single ancestral Mup present in other placental mammals. Our findings illustrate that increasing genomic complexity of the Mup gene family is not evolutionarily isolated, but is instead a recurring mechanism of generating coding diversity consistent with a species-specific function in mammals.