Date of this Version
Mol. Biol. Evol. 32(4):871–887
The apparent stasis in the evolution of avian chromosomes suggests that birds may have experienced relatively low rates of gene gain and loss in multigene families. To investigate this possibility and to explore the phenotypic consequences of variation in gene copy number, we examined evolutionary changes in the families of genes that encode the α- and β-type subunits of hemoglobin (Hb), the tetrameric α2β2 protein responsible for blood-O2 transport. A comparative genomic analysis of 52 bird species revealed that the size and membership composition of the α- and β-globin gene families have remained remarkably constant during approximately 100 My of avian evolution. Most interspecific variation in gene content is attributable to multiple independent inactivations of the αD-globin gene, which encodes the α-chain subunit of a functionally distinct Hb isoform (HbD) that is expressed in both embryonic and definitive erythrocytes. Due to consistent differences in O2-binding properties between HbD and the major adult-expressed Hb isoform, HbA (which incorporates products of the αA-globin gene), recurrent losses of αD-globin contribute to among-species variation in blood-O2 affinity. Analysis of HbA/HbD expression levels in the red blood cells of 122 bird species revealed high variability among lineages and strong phylogenetic signal. In comparison with the homologous gene clusters in mammals, the low retention rate for lineage-specific gene duplicates in the avian globin gene clusters suggests that the developmental regulation of Hb synthesis in birds may be more highly conserved, with orthologous genes having similar stage-specific expression profiles and similar functional properties in disparate taxa.