Identification of novel mammalian caspases reveals an important role of gene loss in shaping the human caspase repertoire

Leopold Eckhart, Claudia Ballaun, Marcela Hermann, John L. VandeBerg, Wolfgang Sipos, Aumaid Uthman, Heinz Fischer, Erwin Tschachler

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    66 Scopus citations


    Proteases of the caspase family play central roles in apoptosis and inflammation. Recently, we have described a new gene encoding caspase-15 that has been inactivated independently in different mammalian lineages. To determine the dynamics of gene duplication and loss in the entire caspase gene family, we performed a comprehensive evolutionary analysis of mammalian caspases. By comparative genomics and reverse transcriptase-polymerase chain reaction analyses, we identified 3 novel mammalian caspase genes, which we tentatively named caspases-16 through -18. Caspase-16, which is most similar in sequence to caspase-14, has been conserved in marsupials and placental mammals, including humans. Caspase-17, which is most similar to caspase-3, has been conserved among fish, frog, chicken, lizard, and the platypus but is absent from marsupials and placental mammals. Caspase-18, which is most similar to caspase-8, has been conserved among chicken, platypus, and opossum but is absent from placental mammals. These gene distribution patterns suggest that, in the evolutionary lineage leading to humans, caspase-17 was lost after the split of protherian and therian mammals and caspase-18 was lost after the split of marsupials and placental mammals. In the canine genome, the number of caspases has been reduced by the fusion of the neighboring genes caspases-1 and -4, resulting in a single coding region. Further lineage-specific gene inactivations were found for caspase-10 in murine rodents and caspase-12 in humans, rabbit, and cow. Lineage-specific gene duplications were found for caspases-1, -3, and -12 in opossum and caspase-4 in primates. Other caspases were generally conserved in all mammalian species investigated. Using the positions of introns as stable characters during recent vertebrate evolution, we define 3 phylogenetic clades of caspase genes: caspases-1/-2/-4/-5/-9/-12/-14/-15/-16 (clade I), caspases-3/-6/-7/-17 (clade II), and caspases-8/-10/-18/CFLAR (clade III). We conclude that gene inactivations have occurred in each of the 3 caspase clades and that gene loss has been as critical as gene duplication in the evolution of the human repertoire of caspases.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)831-841
    Number of pages11
    JournalMolecular Biology and Evolution
    Issue number5
    StatePublished - May 2008


    • Caspase
    • Comparative genomics
    • Gene duplication
    • Gene loss
    • Mammals

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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