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Background: Selenium (Se) is an essential trace element that occurs in proteins in the form of selenocysteine (Sec). It is transported throughout the body in the form of Sec residues in Selenoprotein P (SelP), a plasma protein of unclear origin recently proposed as an experimental marker of dietary Se status.
Results: Here, we report that the amino-terminal domain of SelP is distantly related to ancestral bacterial thiol oxidoreductases of the thioredoxin superfamily, and that its carboxy-terminal Se transport domain may have originated in early metazoan evolution by de novo accumulation of Sec residues. Reconstruction of evolutionary changes in the Se transport domain indicates a decrease in Sec content of SelP specifically in the mammalian lineage via replacement of Sec with cysteine (Cys). Sec content of mammalian SelPs varies more than two-fold and is lowest in rodents and primates. Compared to mammals, fish show higher Sec content of SelP, larger selenoproteomes, elevated SelP gene expression, and higher levels of tissue Se. In addition, mammals replaced Sec with Cys in several proteins and lost several selenoproteins altogether, whereas such events are not found in fish.
Conclusion: These data suggest that evolution from fish to mammals was accompanied by decreased use of Sec and that analyses of SelP, selenoproteomes and Sec/Cys transitions provide a genetic marker of utilization of this trace element in vertebrates. The evolved reduced reliance on Se raises questions regarding the need to maximize selenoprotein expression by Se dietary supplements in situations when pathology is not imminent, a currently accepted practice.