NIMA-related kinases (Neks) have been studied in diverse eukaryotes, including the fungus Aspergillus and the ciliate Tetrahymena. In the former, a single Nek plays an essential role in cell cycle regulation; in the latter, which has more than 30 Neks in its genome, multiple Neks regulate ciliary length. Mammalian genomes encode an intermediate number of Neks, several of which are reported to play roles in cell cycle regulation and/or localize to centrosomes. Previously, we reported that organisms with cilia typically have more Neks than organisms without cilia, but were unable to establish the evolutionary history of the gene family.
We have performed a large-scale analysis of the Nek family using Bayesian techniques, including tests of alternate topologies. We find that the Nek family had already expanded in the last common ancestor of eukaryotes, a ciliated cell which likely expressed at least five Neks. We suggest that Neks played an important role in the common ancestor in regulating cilia, centrioles, and centrosomes with respect to mitotic entry, and that this role continues today in organisms with cilia. Organisms that lack cilia generally show a reduction in the number of Nek clades represented, sometimes associated with lineage specific expansion of a single clade, as has occurred in the plants.
This is the first rigorous phylogenetic analysis of a kinase family across a broad array of phyla. Our findings provide a coherent framework for the study of Neks and their roles in coordinating cilia and cell cycle progression.