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Background: The evolution of multicellularity is accompanied by the occurrence of differentiated tissues, of organismal developmental programs, and of mechanisms keeping the balance between proliferation and differentiation. Initially, the SET-domain proteins were associated exclusively with regulation of developmental genes in metazoa. However, finding of SET-domain genes in the unicellular yeasts Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Schizosaccharomyces pombe suggested that SET-domain proteins regulate a much broader variety of biological programs. Intuitively, it is expected that the numbers, types, and biochemical specificity of SET-domain proteins of multicellular versus unicellular forms would reflect the differences in their biology. However, comparisons across the unicellular and multicellular domains of life are complicated by the lack of knowledge of the ancestral SET-domain genes. Even within the crown group, different biological systems might use the epigenetic 'code' differently, adapting it to organism-specific needs. Simplifying the model, we undertook a systematic phylogenetic analysis of one monophyletic fungal group (Ascomycetes) containing unicellular yeasts, Saccharomycotina (hemiascomycetes), and a filamentous fungal group, Pezizomycotina (euascomycetes).
Results: Systematic analysis of the SET-domain genes across an entire eukaryotic phylum has outlined clear distinctions in the SET-domain gene collections in the unicellular and in the multicellular (filamentous) relatives; diversification of SET-domain gene families has increased further with the expansion and elaboration of multicellularity in animal and plant systems. We found several ascomycota-specific SET-domain gene groups; each was unique to either Saccharomycotina or Pezizomycotina fungi. Our analysis revealed that the numbers and types of SET-domain genes in the Saccharomycotina did not reflect the habitats, pathogenicity, mechanisms of sexuality, or the ability to undergo morphogenic transformations. However, novel genes have appeared for functions associated with the transition to multicellularity. Descendents of most of the SET-domain gene families found in the filamentous fungi could be traced in the genomes of extant animals and plants, albeit as more complex structural forms.
Conclusion: SET-domain genes found in the filamentous species but absent from the unicellular sister group reflect two alternative evolutionary events: deletion from the yeast genomes or appearance of novel structures in filamentous fungal groups. There were no Ascomycota-specific SET-domain gene families (i.e., absent from animal and plant genomes); however, plants and animals share SET-domain gene subfamilies that do not exist in the fungi. Phylogenetic and genestructure analyses defined several animal and plant SET-domain genes as sister groups while those of fungal origin were basal to them. Plants and animals also share SET-domain subfamilies that do not exist in fungi.