Superoxide dismutase 1 is positively selected to minimize protein aggregation in great apes

Pouria Dasmeh, Kasper Planeta Kepp

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Positive (adaptive) selection has recently been implied in human superoxide dismutase 1 (SOD1), a highly abundant antioxidant protein with energy signaling and antiaging functions, one of very few examples of direct selection on a human protein product (exon); the molecular drivers of this selection are unknown. We mapped 30 extant SOD1 sequences to the recently established mammalian species tree and inferred ancestors, key substitutions, and signatures of selection during the protein's evolution. We detected elevated substitution rates leading to great apes (Hominidae) at ~1 per 2 million years, significantly higher than in other primates and rodents, although these paradoxically generally evolve much faster. The high evolutionary rate was partly due to relaxation of some selection pressures and partly to distinct positive selection of SOD1 in great apes. We then show that higher stability and net charge and changes at the dimer interface were selectively introduced upon separation from old world monkeys and lesser apes (gibbons). Consequently, human, chimpanzee and gorilla SOD1s have a net charge of -6 at physiological pH, whereas the closely related gibbons and macaques have -3. These features consistently point towards selection against the malicious aggregation effects of elevated SOD1 levels in long-living great apes. The findings mirror the impact of human SOD1 mutations that reduce net charge and/or stability and cause ALS, a motor neuron disease characterized by oxidative stress and SOD1 aggregates and triggered by aging. Our study thus marks an example of direct selection for a particular chemical phenotype (high net charge and stability) in a single human protein with possible implications for the evolution of aging.
Original languageEnglish
JournalCellular and Molecular Life Sciences
Number of pages15
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • Primate evolution
  • Evolution of aging
  • Superoxide dismutase 1
  • Oxidative stress
  • Protein aggregation

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