Semaphorins and plexins are cell surface ligand/receptor proteins that affect cytoskeletal dynamics in metazoan cells. Interestingly, they are also present in Choanoflagellata, a class of unicellular heterotrophic flagellates that forms the phylogenetic sister group to Metazoa. Several members of choanoflagellates are capable of forming transient colonies, whereas others reside solitary inside exoskeletons; their molecular diversity is only beginning to emerge. Here, we surveyed genomics data from 22 choanoflagellate species and detected semaphorin/plexin pairs in 16 species. Choanoflagellate semaphorins (Sema-FN1) contain several domain features distinct from metazoan semaphorins, including an N-terminal Reeler domain that may facilitate dimer stabilization, an array of fibronectin type III domains, a variable serine/threonine-rich domain that is a potential site for O-linked glycosylation, and a SEA domain that can undergo autoproteolysis. In contrast, choanoflagellate plexins (Plexin-1) harbor a domain arrangement that is largely identical to metazoan plexins. Both Sema-FN1 and Plexin-1 also contain a short homologous motif near the C-terminus, likely associated with a shared function. Three-dimensional molecular models revealed a highly conserved structural architecture of choanoflagellate Plexin-1 as compared to metazoan plexins, including similar predicted conformational changes in a segment that is involved in the activation of the intracellular Ras-GAP domain. The absence of semaphorins and plexins in several choanoflagellate species did not appear to correlate with unicellular versus colonial lifestyle or ecological factors such as fresh versus salt water environment. Together, our findings support a conserved mechanism of semaphorin/plexin proteins in regulating cytoskeletal dynamics in unicellular and multicellular organisms.
- axon guidance