The completion of 19 insect genome sequencing projects spanning six insect orders provides the opportunity to investigate the evolution of important gene families, here tubulins. Tubulins are a family of eukaryotic structural genes that form microtubules, fundamental components of the cytoskeleton that mediate cell division, shape, motility, and intracellular trafficking. Previous in vivo studies in Drosophila find a stringent relationship between tubulin structure and function; small, biochemically similar changes in the major alpha 1 or testis-specific beta 2 tubulin protein render each unable to generate a motile spermtail axoneme. This has evolutionary implications, not a single non-synonymous substitution is found in beta 2 among 17 species of Drosophila and Hirtodrosophila flies spanning 60 Myr of evolution. This raises an important question, How do tubulins evolve while maintaining their function? To answer, we use molecular evolutionary analyses to characterize the evolution of insect tubulins.
Sixty-six alpha tubulins and eighty-six beta tubulin gene copies were retrieved and subjected to molecular evolutionary analyses. Four ancient clades of alpha and beta tubulins are found in insects, a major isoform clade (alpha 1, beta 1) and three minor, tissue-specific clades (alpha 2-4, beta 2-4). Based on a Homarus americanus (lobster) outgroup, these were generated through gene duplication events on major beta and alpha tubulin ancestors, followed by subfunctionalization in expression domain. Strong purifying selection acts on all tubulins, yet maximum pairwise amino acid distances between tubulin paralogs are large (0.464 substitutions/site beta tubulins, 0.707 alpha tubulins). Conversely orthologs, with the exception of reproductive tissue isoforms, show little sequence variation except in the last 15 carboxy terminus tail (CTT) residues, which serve as sites for post-translational modifications (PTMs) and interactions with microtubule-associated proteins. CTT residues overwhelming comprise the co-evolving residues between Drosophila alpha 2 and beta 3 tubulin proteins, indicating CTT specializations can be mediated at the level of the tubulin dimer. Gene duplications post-dating separation of the insect orders are unevenly distributed, most often appearing in major alpha 1 and minor beta 2 clades. More than 40 introns are found in tubulins. Their distribution among tubulins reveals that insertion and deletion events are common, surprising given their potential for disrupting tubulin coding sequence. Compensatory evolution is found in Drosophila beta 2 tubulin cis-regulation, and reveals selective pressures acting to maintain testis expression without the use of previously identified testis cis-regulatory elements.
Tubulins have stringent structure/function relationships, indicated by strong purifying selection, the loss of many gene duplication products, alpha-beta co-evolution in the tubulin dimer, and compensatory evolution in beta 2 tubulin cis-regulation. They evolve through gene duplication, subfunctionalization in expression domain and divergence of duplication products, largely in CTT residues that mediate interactions with other proteins. This has resulted in the tissue-specific minor insect isoforms, and in particular the highly diverse α3, α4, and β2 reproductive tissue-specific tubulin isoforms, illustrating that even a highly conserved protein family can participate in the adaptive process and respond to sexual selection.