Repository logo

A unified evolutionary origin for the ubiquitous protein transporters SecY and YidC.

Published version

Change log


Lewis, Aaron JO 


BACKGROUND: Protein transporters translocate hydrophilic segments of polypeptide across hydrophobic cell membranes. Two protein transporters are ubiquitous and date back to the last universal common ancestor: SecY and YidC. SecY consists of two pseudosymmetric halves, which together form a membrane-spanning protein-conducting channel. YidC is an asymmetric molecule with a protein-conducting hydrophilic groove that partially spans the membrane. Although both transporters mediate insertion of membrane proteins with short translocated domains, only SecY transports secretory proteins and membrane proteins with long translocated domains. The evolutionary origins of these ancient and essential transporters are not known. RESULTS: The features conserved by the two halves of SecY indicate that their common ancestor was an antiparallel homodimeric channel. Structural searches with SecY's halves detect exceptional similarity with YidC homologs. The SecY halves and YidC share a fold comprising a three-helix bundle interrupted by a helical hairpin. In YidC, this hairpin is cytoplasmic and facilitates substrate delivery, whereas in SecY, it is transmembrane and forms the substrate-binding lateral gate helices. In both transporters, the three-helix bundle forms a protein-conducting hydrophilic groove delimited by a conserved hydrophobic residue. Based on these similarities, we propose that SecY originated as a YidC homolog which formed a channel by juxtaposing two hydrophilic grooves in an antiparallel homodimer. We find that archaeal YidC and its eukaryotic descendants use this same dimerisation interface to heterodimerise with a conserved partner. YidC's sufficiency for the function of simple cells is suggested by the results of reductive evolution in mitochondria and plastids, which tend to retain SecY only if they require translocation of large hydrophilic domains. CONCLUSIONS: SecY and YidC share previously unrecognised similarities in sequence, structure, mechanism, and function. Our delineation of a detailed correspondence between these two essential and ancient transporters enables a deeper mechanistic understanding of how each functions. Furthermore, key differences between them help explain how SecY performs its distinctive function in the recognition and translocation of secretory proteins. The unified theory presented here explains the evolution of these features, and thus reconstructs a key step in the origin of cells.



Research Article, Oxa1 superfamily, Protein translocation, Membrane protein integration, Protocell evolution, SecY, YidC

Journal Title

BMC Biol

Conference Name

Journal ISSN


Volume Title



Springer Science and Business Media LLC
Medical Research Council (MC_ UP_A022_1007)