Phylogeny, Function and evolution of the cupins, a structurally conserved, functionally diverse superfamily of proteins

S. Khuri, F.T. Bakker, J.M. Dunwell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

120 Citations (Scopus)


The cupin superfamily is a group of functionally diverse proteins that are found in all three kingdoms of life, Archaea, Eubacteria, and Eukaryota. These proteins have a characteristic signature domain comprising two histidine- containing motifs separated by an intermotif region of variable length. This domain consists of six beta strands within a conserved beta barrel structure. Most cupins, such as microbial phosphomannose isomerases (PMIs), AraC- type transcriptional regulators, and cereal oxalate oxidases (OXOs), contain only a single domain, whereas others, such as seed storage proteins and oxalate decarboxylases (OXDCs), are bi-cupins with two pairs of motifs. Although some cupins have known functions and have been characterized at the biochemical level, the majority are known only from gene cloning or sequencing projects. In this study, phylogenetic analyses were conducted on the conserved domain to investigate the evolution and structure/function relationships of cupins, with an emphasis on single- domain plant germin-like proteins (GLPs). An unrooted phylogeny of cupins from a wide spectrum of evolutionary lineages identified three main clusters, microbial PMIs, OXDCs, and plant GLPs. The sister group to the plant GLPs in the global analysis was then used to root a phylogeny of all available plant GLPs. The resulting phylogeny contained three main clades, classifying the GLPs into distinct subfamilies. It is suggested that these subfamilies correlate with functional categories, one of which contains the bifunctional barley germin that has both OXO and superoxide dismutase (SOD) activity. It is proposed that GLPs function primarily as SODs, enzymes that protect plants from the effects of oxidative stress. Closer inspection of the DNA sequence encoding the intermotif region in plant GLPs showed global conservation of thymine in the second codon position, a character associated with hydrophobic residues. Since many of these proteins are multimeric and enzymatically inactive in their monomeric state, this conservation of hydrophobicity is thought to be associated with the need to maintain the various monomer- monomer interactions. The type of structure-based predictive analysis presented in this paper is an important approach for understanding gene function and evolution in an era when genomes from a wide range of organisms are being sequenced at a rapid rate.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)593-605
JournalMolecular Biology and Evolution
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2001


  • germin-like protein
  • seed storage proteins
  • oxalate oxidase
  • microbial relatives
  • wheat
  • expression
  • archaea
  • plants
  • leaves
  • transcription

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