The immune-modulating pregnancy-specific glycoproteins evolve rapidly and their presence correlates with hemochorial placentation in primates
Background Pregnancy-specific glycoprotein (PSG) genes belong to the carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA) gene family, within the immunoglobulin gene superfamily. In humans, 10 PSG genes encode closely related secreted glycoproteins. They are exclusively expressed in fetal syncytiotrophoblast cells and represent the most abundant fetal proteins in the maternal blood. In recent years, a role in modulation of the maternal immune system possibly to avoid rejection of the semiallogeneic fetus and to facilitate access of trophoblast cells to maternal resources via the blood system has been suggested. Alternatively, they could serve as soluble pathogen decoy receptors like other members of the CEA family. Despite their clearly different domain organization, similar functional properties have also been observed for murine and bat PSG. As these species share a hemochorial type of placentation and a seemingly convergent formation of PSG genes during evolution, we hypothesized that hemochorial placentae support the evolution of PSG gene families. Results To strengthen this hypothesis, we have analyzed PSG genes in 57 primate species which exhibit hemochorial or epitheliochorial placentation. In nearly all analyzed apes some 10 PSG genes each could be retrieved from genomic databases, while 6 to 24 PSG genes were found in Old World monkey genomes. Surprisingly, only 1 to 7 PSG genes could be identified in New World monkeys. Interestingly, no PSG genes were found in more distantly related primates with epitheliochorial placentae like lemurs and lorises. The exons encoding the putative receptor-binding domains exhibit strong selection for diversification in most primate PSG as revealed by rapid loss of orthologous relationship during evolution and high ratios of nonsynonymous and synonymous mutations. Conclusion The distribution of trophoblast-specific PSGs in primates and their pattern of selection supports the hypothesis that PSG are still evolving to optimize fetal-maternal or putative pathogen interactions in mammals with intimate contact of fetal cells with the immune system of the mother like in hemochorial placentation.