Papers in the Biological Sciences


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Natarajan et al., 2023, Current Biology 33, 98–108.


Open access.


The extraordinary breath-hold diving capacity of crocodilians has been ascribed to a unique mode of allosterically regulating hemoglobin (Hb)-oxygenation in circulating red blood cells. We investigated the origin and mechanistic basis of this novel biochemical phenomenon by performing directed mutagenesis experiments on resurrected ancestral Hbs. Comparisons of Hb function between the common ancestor of archosaurs (the group that includes crocodilians and birds) and the last common ancestor of modern crocodilians revealed that regulation of Hb-O2 affinity via allosteric binding of bicarbonate ions represents a croc-specific innovation that evolved in combination with the loss of allosteric regulation by ATP binding. Mutagenesis experiments revealed that evolution of the novel allosteric function in crocodilians and the concomitant loss of ancestral function were not mechanistically coupled and were caused by different sets of substitutions. The gain of bicarbonate sensitivity in crocodilian Hb involved the direct effect of few amino acid substitutions at key sites in combination with indirect effects of numerous other substitutions at structurally disparate sites. Such indirect interaction effects suggest that evolution of the novel protein function was conditional on neutral mutations that produced no adaptive benefit when they first arose but that contributed to a permissive background for subsequent function-altering mutations at other sites. Due to the context dependence of causative substitutions, the unique allosteric properties of crocodilian Hb cannot be easily transplanted into divergent homologs of other species.

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