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The ABC transporter gene family of Caenorhabditis elegans has implications for the evolutionary dynamics of multidrug resistance in eukaryotes

Jonathan A Sheps1, Steven Ralph13, Zhongying Zhao2, David L Baillie2 and Victor Ling1*

Author Affiliations

1 British Columbia Cancer Research Centre, BC Cancer Agency, 601 West 10th Avenue, Vancouver BC, V5Z 1L6 Canada

2 Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, Simon Fraser University, 8888 University Drive, Burnaby BC, V5A 1S6 Canada

3 Current address: Genome BC and the Departments of Botany and Forest Sciences, University of British Columbia, 6270 University Blvd., Vancouver BC, V6T 1Z4 Canada

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Genome Biology 2004, 5:R15  doi:

Published: 11 February 2004



Many drugs of natural origin are hydrophobic and can pass through cell membranes. Hydrophobic molecules must be susceptible to active efflux systems if they are to be maintained at lower concentrations in cells than in their environment. Multi-drug resistance (MDR), often mediated by intrinsic membrane proteins that couple energy to drug efflux, provides this function. All eukaryotic genomes encode several gene families capable of encoding MDR functions, among which the ABC transporters are the largest. The number of candidate MDR genes means that study of the drug-resistance properties of an organism cannot be effectively carried out without taking a genomic perspective.


We have annotated sequences for all 60 ABC transporters from the Caenorhabditis elegans genome, and performed a phylogenetic analysis of these along with the 49 human, 30 yeast, and 57 fly ABC transporters currently available in GenBank. Classification according to a unified nomenclature is presented. Comparison between genomes reveals much gene duplication and loss, and surprisingly little orthology among analogous genes. Proteins capable of conferring MDR are found in several distinct subfamilies and are likely to have arisen independently multiple times.


ABC transporter evolution fits a pattern expected from a process termed 'dynamic-coherence'. This is an unusual result for such a highly conserved gene family as this one, present in all domains of cellular life. Mechanistically, this may result from the broad substrate specificity of some ABC proteins, which both reduces selection against gene loss, and leads to the facile sorting of functions among paralogs following gene duplication.