The evolution of milk casein genes from tooth genes before the origin of mammals

Kazuhiko Kawasaki, Anne Gaelle Lafont, Jean Yves Sire

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Caseins are among cardinal proteins that evolved in the lineage leading to mammals. In milk, caseins and calcium phosphate (CaP) form a huge complex called casein micelle. By forming the micelle, milk maintains high CaP concentrations, which help altricial mammalian neonates to grow bone and teeth. Two types of caseins are known. Ca-sensitive caseins (αs- and β-caseins) bind Ca but precipitate at high Ca concentrations, whereas Ca-insensitive casein (κ-casein) does not usually interact with Ca but instead stabilizes the micelle. Thus, it is thought that these two types of caseins are both necessary for stable micelle formation. Both types of caseins show high substitution rates, which make it difficult to elucidate the evolution of caseins. Yet, recent studies have revealed that all casein genes belong to the secretory calcium-binding phosphoprotein (SCPP) gene family that arose by gene duplication. In the present study, we investigated exon-intron structures and phylogenetic distributions of casein and other SCPP genes, particularly the odontogenic ameloblast-associated (ODAM) gene, the SCPP-Pro-Gln-rich 1 (SCPPPQ1) gene, and the follicular dendritic cell secreted peptide (FDCSP) gene. The results suggest that contemporary Ca-sensitive casein genes arose from a putative common ancestor, which we refer to as CSN1/2. The six putative exons comprising CSN1/2 are all found in SCPPPQ1, although ODAM also shares four of these exons. By contrast, the five exons of the Ca-insensitive casein gene are all reminiscent of FDCSP. The phylogenetic distribution of these genes suggests that both SCPPPQ1 and FDCSP arose from ODAM. We thus argue that all casein genes evolved from ODAM via two different pathways; Ca-sensitive casein genes likely originated directly from SCPPPQ1, whereas the Ca-insensitive casein genes directly differentiated from FDCSP. Further, expression of ODAM, SCPPPQ1, and FDCSP was detected in dental tissues, supporting the idea that both types of caseins evolved as Ca-binding proteins. Based on these findings, we propose two alternative hypotheses for micelle formation in primitive milk. The conserved biochemical characteristics in caseins and their immediate ancestors also suggest that many slight genetic modifications have created modern caseins, proteins vital to the sustained success of mammals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2053-2061
Number of pages9
JournalMolecular biology and evolution
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics


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