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Adaptive Evolution of Voltage-Gated Sodium Channels: The First 800 Million Years



Voltage-gated Na+-permeable (Nav) channels form the basis for electrical excitability in animals. Nav channels evolved from Ca2+ channels and were present in the common ancestor of choanoflagellates and animals, although this channel was likely permeable to both Na+ and Ca2+. Thus, like many other neuronal channels and receptors, Nav channels predated neurons. Invertebrates possess two Nav channels (Nav1 and Nav2), whereas vertebrate Nav channels are of the Nav1 family. Approximately 500 Mya in early chordates Nav channels evolved a motif that allowed them to cluster at axon initial segments; 50 million years later with the evolution of myelin, Nav channels “capitalized” on this property and clustered at nodes of Ranvier. The enhancement of conduction velocity along with the evolution of jaws likely made early gnathostomes fierce predators and the dominant vertebrates in the ocean. Later in vertebrate evolution, the Nav channel gene family expanded in parallel in tetrapods and teleosts (~9 to 10 genes in amniotes, 8 in teleosts). This expansion occurred during or after the late Devonian extinction, when teleosts and tetrapods each diversified in their respective habitats, and coincided with an increase in the number of telencephalic nuclei in both groups. The expansion of Nav channels may have allowed for more sophisticated neural computation and tailoring of Nav channel kinetics with potassium channel kinetics to enhance energy savings. Nav channels show adaptive sequence evolution for increasing diversity in communication signals


Section of Neurobiology, University of Texas, Austin, TX 78712; and Marine Biological Laboratory, The Josephine Bay Paul Center for Comparative Molecular Biology and Evolution, Woods Hole, MA 02543. E-mail:

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