Background The regulation of cellular membrane trafficking in all eukaryotes is a very complex mechanism, mostly regulated by the Rab family proteins. Among all membrane-enclosed organelles, melanosomes are the cellular site for synthesis, storage and transport of melanin granules, making them an excellent model for studies on organelle biogenesis and motility. Specific Rab proteins, as Rab32 and Rab38, have been shown to play a key role in melanosome biogenesis. We analysed the Rab32 and Rab38 genes in the teleost zebrafish and in the cephalochordate amphioxus, gaining insight on their evolutionary history following gene and genome duplications.
Results We studied the molecular evolution of Rab supergroup III in deuterostomes by phylogenetic reconstruction, intron and synteny conservation. We discovered a novel amino acid stretch, named FALK, shared by three related classes belonging to Rab supergroup III: Rab7L1, Rab32LO and Rab32/Rab38. Among these, we demonstrated that the Rab32LO class, already present in the last common eukaryotic ancestor, was lost in urochordates and vertebrates. Synteny shows that one zebrafish gene, Rab38a, which is expressed in pigmented cells, retained the linkage with tyrosinase, a protein essential for pigmentation. Moreover, the chromosomal linkage of Rab32 or Rab38 with a member of the glutamate receptor metabotropic (Grm) family has been retained in all analysed gnathostomes, suggesting a conserved microsynteny in the vertebrate ancestor. Expression patterns of Rab32 and Rab38 genes in zebrafish, and Rab32/38 in amphioxus, indicate their involvement in development of pigmented cells and notochord.
Conclusions Phylogenetic, intron conservation and synteny analyses point towards an evolutionary scenario based on a duplication of a single invertebrate Rab32/38 gene giving rise to vertebrate Rab32 and Rab38. The expression patterns of Rab38 paralogues highlight sub-functionalization event. Finally, the discovery of a chromosomal linkage between the Rab32 or Rab38 gene with a Grm opens new perspectives on possible conserved bystander gene regulation across the vertebrate evolution.