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Molecular evolution of pentatricopeptide repeat genes reveals truncation in species lacking an editing target and structural domains under distinct selective pressures



Pentatricopeptide repeat (PPR) proteins are required for numerous RNA processing events in plant organelles including C-to-U editing, splicing, stabilization, and cleavage. Fifteen PPR proteins are known to be required for RNA editing at 21 sites in Arabidopsis chloroplasts, and belong to the PLS class of PPR proteins. In this study, we investigate the co-evolution of four PPR genes (CRR4, CRR21, CLB19, and OTP82) and their six editing targets in Brassicaceae species. PPR genes are composed of approximately 10 to 20 tandem repeats and each repeat has two α-helical regions, helix A and helix B, that are separated by short coil regions. Each repeat and structural feature was examined to determine the selective pressures on these regions.


All of the PPR genes examined are under strong negative selection. Multiple independent losses of editing site targets are observed for both CRR21 and OTP82. In several species lacking the known editing target for CRR21, PPR genes are truncated near the 17th PPR repeat. The coding sequences of the truncated CRR21 genes are maintained under strong negative selection; however, the 3’ UTR sequences beyond the truncation site have substantially diverged. Phylogenetic analyses of four PPR genes show that sequences corresponding to helix A are high compared to helix B sequences. Differential evolutionary selection of helix A versus helix B is observed in both plant and mammalian PPR genes.


PPR genes and their cognate editing sites are mutually constrained in evolution. Editing sites are frequently lost by replacement of an edited C with a genomic T. After the loss of an editing site, the PPR genes are observed with three outcomes: first, few changes are detected in some cases; second, the PPR gene is present as a pseudogene; and third, the PPR gene is present but truncated in the C-terminal region. The retention of truncated forms of CRR21 that are maintained under strong negative selection even in the absence of an editing site target suggests that unrecognized function(s) might exist for this PPR protein. PPR gene sequences that encode helix A are under strong selection, and could be involved in RNA substrate recognition.


Pentatrico peptide repeat (PPR) proteins are present in yeasts, mammals, plants, protists and are thought to be present in most eukaryotes [1, 2]. All of these organisms have P class PPR proteins that are characterized by tandem repeats of a degenerate 35 amino acid motif. The PPR family of proteins has greatly expanded in land plants [1]. In addition to the P class of PPR proteins, roughly half of land plant PPR proteins have a repeating tripartite sequence of P, L, and S type PPR repeats [1]. PLS type proteins typically have additional C-terminal domains known as the E, E + and DYW domains [1]. The DYW domain may be the catalytic deaminase domain based on the conserved residues that are similar to cytidine deaminases, evolutionary co-incidence with RNA editing, and structural models that suggest a deaminase-like conformation [35]. PPR proteins are known to be required for RNA editing, splicing, stabilization, and cleavage in plant organelles [611].

Cytidines are edited to uridines in many mitochondrial and chloroplasts transcripts [12, 13]. RNA editing typically leads to the maintenance of an evolutionary conserved codon at the RNA level, and is thought to repair errors that were allowed to accumulate in the genome [14]. In the plant A. thaliana, fifteen PPR proteins have been identified that are necessary for editing 21 of the 34 known chloroplast RNA editing sites [8, 1521]. The genes that have been shown to be required for chloroplast editing are PLS type PPR proteins and include at least the C-terminal E domain, while the presence of the E + and DYW domains varies. Disruption of some PPR genes that are required for editing results in photosynthetic defects [8, 15, 16, 19, 21], while disruption of other PPR genes lead to weak phenotypes in spite of the elimination of editing at one or more editing sites [17, 18]. Although detailed mechanisms for RNA binding are not known, amino acid changes in PPR proteins have been associated with changes in editing efficiency [2225], and this observation suggests that there is significant co-evolution between nuclear-encoded editing factors and organellar RNA cis-elements. Editing activity for an exogenous site was observed in a plant that lacked an endogenous target, suggesting that the conservation of the editing activity occurred independently from an editing target [26].

Loss of cognate editing sites for a PPR has been shown to result in pseudogene formation that was apparently the result of the loss of evolutionary selection in the absence of the target editing site [27]. In this study, we show that multiple independent losses of an editing site target correlates with truncation of a PLS type PPR gene and elimination of the editing-associated E/E + domains in the C-terminus. Unexpectedly, even in the absence of the known editing site target, the truncated PPR genes are maintained under strong negative selection. The maintenance of strong negative selection suggests that these orphan PPR genes might have an additional unrecognized function that is independent of the known chloroplast RNA editing function.


The evolution of editing sites associated with four Brassicaceae PPR genes

Four PPR genes (CRR4, CRR21, CLB19, OTP82) were selected for this study based on the number of editing site targets and their distribution in Brassicaceae species (Additional file 1). CRR4 and CRR21 are each required for editing a single site in A. thaliana chloroplasts. CRR4 is required for editing ndhD C2 which is present in all species of Brassicaceae that were examined, and this condition is referred to as “homogenous” (Additional file 1). In contrast, the CRR21 editing site target has been replaced by a genomic T and is absent in some crucifer species, and the editing site is “heterogeneous” in these taxa (Additional file 1). CLB19 and OTP82 each have two editing site targets in A. thaliana (Additional file 1). For the CLB19 editing site targets, both editing sites are present in all species examined, while each of the OTP82 sites is heterogeneous within the surveyed taxa (Additional file 1).

The extent of editing site conversion of the six editing sites associated with CRR4, CRR21, CLB19, and OTP82 was determined in 21 species using bulk sequencing of cDNA (Table 1). The organisms included the 13 crucifer species with known plastid genomes plus species of agronomic importance (Brassica oleracea, Lepidium sativum, Matthiola incana, and Raphanus sativus) and representatives from diverse branches of the family ( Thlaspi arvense, Iberis amara, Isatis tinctoria, and Hesperis matronalis). Targets of CRR4 ( ndhD C2) and CLB19 ( clpP C559, rpoA C200) were determined to be edited in all species examined (Table 1). The percentage of edited transcripts for the CRR4 target, ndhD C2, varied dramatically from 10-80% (Table 1). The CLB19 target, clpP C559, was nearly fully edited in all species; however, the conversion of the second editing site target, rpoA C200, varied from 40-90% edited transcripts (Table 1). Thus, several species tolerate reduced editing of rpoA C200 in contrast to clpP C559.

Table 1 Editing site conversion for CRR4 , CRR21 , OTP82 and CLB19 editing site targets

Several Brassicaceae species lack editing sites targeted by CRR21 (ndhD C383) and OTP82 ( ndhB C836, ndhG C50) (Table 1). The CRR21 editing site target (ndhD C383) was either fully edited or the editing site was lost through substitution with a genomic T. This result is consistent with strong selection for complete RNA editing driven by a requirement for efficient chlororespiration [19]. A cladogram was constructed from ndhB ndhD ndhG, and clpP sequences to illustrate the evolutionary relationships of the 21 species (Figure 1). The tree topology is consistent with a larger cladogram generated using ITS sequences for a larger pool of Brassicaceae sequences [28]. The four losses of ndhD C383 are observed at different leaves on a cladogram (Figure 1), demonstrating that multiple, independent losses of editing sites occurred during the evolution of the Brassicaceae. These results expand on an earlier report of multiple independent losses of matK editing sites during plant evolution [29].

Figure 1
figure 1

Multiple independent losses of editing sites in Brassicaceae species. The cladogram represents a ML phylogenetic tree built from ndhB, ndhD, ndhG, rpoA, and clpP sequences. aLRT branch values greater than 50 are indicated at each node. Editing activity for an individual editing site is indicated by the filled shapes: ■ for ndhD C383;▲ for ndhB C836; and for ndhG C50. Empty shapes indicate a lineage where loss of editing activity of a C is the most parsimonious explanation for lack of editing in extant species. Empty shapes with an inset T signal a loss of editing activity due to C → T genomic mutation.

The evolution of OTP82 editing site targets was the most complex of the four examples. Two independent losses of the ndhB C836 editing site were observed (Figure 1). In one example, the ndhB C836 editing site was lost through a C to T genomic mutation in a node impacting many Brassicaceae species (Figure 1), while the second example occurred in the final branch leading to M. incana. For the ndhG C50 editing site, three species have either a genomic T that eliminates an editing site or retention of a C and loss of RNA editing (Figure 1). L. maritima retains the C at ndhG C50, but the transcripts exhibit less than 10% conversion to a T in the green leaf tissue examined (Table 1). In the branch leading to A. hirsuta and D. nemorosa, ndhG C50 was replaced by a genomic T in D. nemorosa, but remains as an unedited C in A. hirsuta (Table 1). RNA editing of ndhG C50 creates an F or L codon from an S codon in Brassicaceae; therefore, loss of editing would lead to radical amino acid substitutions in A. hirsuta and L maritima.

Cis-elements for chloroplast editing sites are generally considered to be within nucleotides −20 to +5 relative to the edited C [3032]. The region comprising the cis-elements for the six editing sites examine in this study are nearly identical in the species examined (Additional file 2). In the lineages where an editing site is absent for CRR21 (B. verna, M. incana, T. arvense, L. maritima), the cis-elements for ndhD C383 show no unique substitutions compared with species that edit this site (Additional file 2). In the case of OTP82, nucleotide differences are present in the A. hirsuta cis-element for ndhG C50 and might interfere with editing site recognition. However, the cis-elements are unchanged in L. maritima and in I. amara, yet the ndhG C50 editing site exhibits a highly reduced level of conversion in these species (Table 1, Additional file 2). Editing is not required at the other OTP82 editing site ( ndhB C836) as a result of a genomic T in that position. Thus, the inability to edit ndhB C50 in these species is probably the result of a loss of editing activity rather than a change in the recognition of the cis-element.

The evolution of PPR genes in plants lacking an editing target

Sequences for putative orthologs to CRR4, CRR21, CLB19, and OTP82 were obtained for representative Brassicaceae species through PCR and bulk sequencing (Additional file 3). Each putative PPR gene shares the same basic architecture in terms of number and order of PPR repeats (data not shown). An unrooted NJ phylogenetic tree built using the sequences indicates that each of the four PPR genes forms its own clade, and these genes are apparently orthologous (Figure 2).

Figure 2
figure 2

Cladograms demonstrate orthology of PPR sequences. ( A) A NJ tree built from translated CRR4, CRR21, CLB19, and OTP82 genes sequenced from Brassicaceae species along with orthologs identified in a non-Brassicaceae member Carica papaya from Phytozome v7.0. ( B) A NJ tree built from CRR21 and OTP82 nucleotide sequences from dicots available in nucleotide databases and sequenced in this study. The NJ tree distance using the Maximum Composite Likelihood nucleotide substitution model is indicated by the scale. ( A, B) Accessions for species that lack the cognate editing site are indicated by an *. Amino acids used to construct trees align to the following positions of the current gene models in Arabidopsis: CRR4 (33–446); CRR21 (38–620); CLB19 (67–467); and OTP82 (72–525).

Several species in the Brassicaceae have lost editing targets for CRR21 or OTP82 (Figure 1). Putative orthologs for CRR21 were detected in Brassicaceae species that lack the known target for this gene (Figure 3). The A. thaliana CRR21 gene contains 19 PPR repeats and E and E + domains. Truncated CRR21 genes were detected in three species: B. verna was truncated in PPR repeat 17; and both L. maritima and T. arvense were truncated in the middle of the E domain (Figure 3). These truncated genes are known to be expressed as mRNAs since they were amplified as cDNAs by 3’-RACE. Since plants have frequently undergone genome or gene duplication, it is possible that additional full length copies of the CRR21 gene might be present in these species. Based on PCR and 3’-RACE, the truncated forms of CRR21 represent the only intact CRR21 orthologs that could be detected in these species (see Additional file 4 for more information).

Figure 3
figure 3

Truncated putative orthologs of CRR21 in B. verna , L. maritima , T. arvense , M. esculenta, R. communis, and P. trichocarpa . A cartoon highlights the relative position of truncations by * and the PPRs are represented by a series of boxes. The translated amino acid sequence is shown for two regions above and below the boxes representing the PPR genes. For the amino acid translation of the CRR21 gene, in frame stop codons in the C-terminus and 3’UTR are represented with *. PLS designations are based on the PPR motifs previously described [1].

Since these taxa are separated on distinct branches (Figure 1), these results indicate that multiple independent truncation of the CRR21 gene has occurred in species that have lost the editing site target. Remnants of the full E domain are easily detectable in T. arvense; however, the sequences derived from the E domain are not evident in 3’ UTR sequences from B. verna and L. maritima (Figure 3). Thus, the truncation in T. arvense is probably a more recent event. Recent loss of an editing target is also likely for three Matthiola species that have full length CRR21 putative orthologs (Table 2). A fourth Matthiola species examined, Matthiola longipetala, is capable of editing ndhD C383, suggesting that the loss of editing target has occurred recently in the genus (data not shown).

Table 2 Conservation of CRR21 genes orphaned through loss of editing site target

The ratio of non-synonymous to synonymous substitutions, dN/dS, is a fundamental measure of the type and strength of selection that a protein coding gene has experienced [33]. Genes under strong negative selection exhibit small dN/dS values (<<1.0); this results from very few nucleotide substitutions that are expressed as amino acid substitutions. A dN/dS value of 1 indicates neutral selection, and dN/dS values greater than 1 indicate positive selection. The dN/dS values for the putative orthologs of CRR21 in species that have lost editing targets are much less than 1, and are shown in Table 2. Orphaned CRR21 genes, including both the truncated and the full length examples, are maintained under strong negative selection.

Sequences from a wider taxon sampling were examined to identify whether truncation of CRR21 genes is a common feature or restricted to the Brassicaceae. Additional CRR21 and OTP82 genes were identified through Phytozome 7.0 in the sequenced genomes of M. esculenta, R. communis, P. trichocarpa, M. truncatula, G. max, C. sativus, P. persica, A. lyrata, C. papaya, C. sinensis, C. clementine, E. grandis, V. vinifera, M. guttatus, and A. coerulea. Genes were considered to be putative orthologs if they had greater than 50% sequence identity, were reciprocal best hits to Arabidopsis PPR proteins by TBLASTN, and formed a distinct clade on a NJ tree with the Brassicaceae members (Figure 2). Truncated forms of CRR21 were detected in three species of the Malpighiales ( M. esculenta, R. communis, and P. trichocarpa), and no full length CRR21 genes were found in any of these species (Figure 3). All three species have lost the ndhG C50 editing site by substitution with a genomic T (Figure 2), and loss of the editing site may have occurred in a common ancestor. M. esculenta and R. communis are both in the large Euphorbiaceae family, and the pairwise dN/dS value between M. esculenta and R. communis CRR21 genes is 0.276, indicating strong negative selection of truncated genes. Thus, both truncation of CRR21 and loss of the ndhD C383 editing site target have occurred in additional examples in angiosperm evolution, and these truncated CRR21 genes appear to be maintained under strong negative selection.

Selective constraints for PPR domains varies based on differential selection in helix A and helix B motifs

Individual PPR domains are proposed to fold into two antiparallel helices (helix A and helix B) connected by a coil to create a structure with two faces [3437]. In order to determine variation of selective pressure across the PPR genes, dN/dS was scanned across the gene sequences with a sliding window analysis of 9 codons with 3 codon increments for CRR21 and OTP82 (Figure 4) as well as CRR4 and the mammalian PPR gene PTCD3 (Additional file 5). These analyses show that very slowly evolving regions are most frequently located in specific PPR repeats, in the C-terminal region of the E domain, and in most of the DYW domain (Figure 4).

Figure 4
figure 4

Rate of evolution of the CRR21 (A) and OTP82 (B) genes in Brassicaceae species. dN/dS for windows composed of 9 codons separated by a step of 3 codons were plotted versus the position of the midpoint nucleotide. Below the nucleotide positions the respective positions of predicted helices are indicated by boxes. Each PPR is labeled by the P, L, or S type PPR and the number of the repeat from the N-terminus. Boxes also indicate the E + and DYW domains.

The rates of evolution of each repeat and the C-terminal domains were determined for OTP82 (Figure 5A). Repeats R6, R7, and R13 were found to have dN/dS values that differed significantly from the entire gene (Figure 5A). The DYW domain had the lowest dN/dS value of all domains examined with a value of 0.08 compared with the gene average of 0.19 (Figure 5A). All PPRs had dN/dS values less than 1 and are under strong negative selection (Figure 5A).

Figure 5
figure 5

Rate of evolution for individual PPR domains illustrated with OTP82 . Comparable data for CRR4 and CRR21 are shown in Additional file 4. ( A) dN/dS calculated for OTP82 for each PPR domain, E, E+, and DYW domains. ( A, B) Each repeat is labeled 1 through 13 from the N terminus and P, L, and S domains are indicated [1]. (B) dN/dS versus the aligned PPR and each predicted helix. Black bars indicate values calculated from sequences encoding the entire gene, A helices, a single predicted helix for a PPR, and predicted helices 1 and 3 of the E domain. Grey bars indicate dN/dS values of predicted B-helices and helix 2 and 4 of the E domain. ( A and B) P-values were calculated to determine if computed dN/dS values are significantly different from the mean value for the entire aligned gene. The symbols * and ** indicate data points with p-values <0.05 and <0.005 respectively. C) Values for dN/dS are plotted calculated from 7 PPR genes. For each gene estimated dN/dS is shown for the entire aligned gene, concatenated A helices, and concatenated B-helices. P-values indicate the likelihood that predicted dN/dS values for one concatenated helix differs from the other. Symbols * and ** mark dN/dS estimates that have associated p-values <0.05 and <0.005 respectively. D) A structural prediction for a segment of the OTP82 protein. The image illustrates the inner and outer facing surfaces of the superhelical structure that are predicted to be created by the antiparallel helices of three PPR repeats. The region imaged corresponds to 3 repeats between residues N98 to S202 of OTP82.

Since PPR proteins are thought to be composed of pairs of antiparallel helices [1, 3437], dN/dS values were determined for the A helices and B helices of the individual repeats for OTP82 (Figure 5B). The A helices generally exhibit significantly smaller dN/dS values than the gene as a whole, and this is especially notable in helix A of PPR repeats P1, S10, P11, L12, and S13 (Figure 5B). The third helix of the E domain also had a significantly lower dN/dS value than the mean for the gene (Figure 5B). Helices that have significantly higher dN/dS values than the entire gene include helix A of L6 as well as helix B of S7 and helix 2 of the E domain (Figure 5B).

In order to determine if the difference in selective pressure on helix A and helix B is a general feature of PPR genes, the evolution of A and B helices was compared in the four Brassicaceae PPR genes (CRR4, CRR21, CLB19, and OTP82) and three well studied mammalian PPR genes ( LRPPRC, PTCD1, and PTCD3). For each PPR gene, sequences encoding helix A were selected and concatenated into a single sequence alignment file containing only helix A sequences. Helix B sequences from the second helix of each PPR repeat were treated similarly. The dN/dS ratio was determined for helix A and helix B sequences for each of the genes surveyed (Figure 5C). For six of seven PPR genes examined, helix A is under greater negative selective pressure than helix B (Figure 5C).


PPR gene and target co-evolution

Our analyses demonstrate that RNA editing constrains both the evolution of a PPR gene responsible for editing as well as the cis-element recognized by the PPR protein. Earlier work established that cis-elements in angiosperm chloroplasts recognized by PPR proteins are constrained, and that the loss of an editing requirement by substitution of an edited C with a genomic T relaxed the constraints on cis-element evolution [27, 38, 39]. The results of this study extend these observations through comparison of the evolutionary changes in PPR genes when editing sites are maintained or are lost in evolution. PPR genes such as CRR4 and CLB19 that have evolved in the context of a homogenous requirement for editing are maintained under strong negative selection and gene architecture is stable.

By contrast, PPR genes such as CRR21 and OTP82 have evolved in an environment where the requirement to edit has changed. Loss of an editing target has previously been shown to correlate with conversion of CRR4 into a pseudogene in Medicago truncatula[27]. As a contrasting example, this study has shown that the CRR21 gene has been maintained intact after a recent editing site loss, as observed in Matthiola species. Additional examples of editing site loss are observed for the OTP82 gene, which is required for the conversion of two editing site targets. The OTP82 gene is maintained under strong negative selection after loss of the ndhB C836 editing site by substitution with a genomic T in T. arvense I. tinctoria R. sativus B. oleracea, and B. rapa (Figure 1), presumably because OTP82 is still required for a second editing activity at ndhG C50 in all of these species.

A third consequence of editing site loss is the observation of gene truncation with CRR21. The ndhD C383 editing site has been lost by substitution with a genomic T in T. arvense B. verna L. maritima, P. trichocarpa R. communis, and M. esculenta. Orthologs of CRR21 are present in all six species, but have truncated C-terminal domains in or near repeat 17 or in the middle of the E domain (Figure 3). All known chloroplast PPR proteins that are required for editing site conversion have an intact E domain, and the C-terminal domains of CRR4 have been shown to be critical for editing functions in A. thaliana[19]; thus, there is strong evidence that the E domain is required for a functional editing PPR protein.

We observed at least three independent C-terminal truncations of CRR21 genes in the Brassicaceae, yet these orphaned CRR21 genes are maintained under strong negative selection. Several observations suggest that these truncated CRR21 genes are not a first step in pseudogene formation. First, the dN/dS values are very small within the coding sequences of the truncated PPR genes, and range from 0.079 to 0.246 (Table 2). Second, examination of the C-terminal regions beyond the truncation site indicates that these sequences that now comprise the 3’UTR have experienced very high levels indels and nucleotide substitutions (Figure 3). This is consistent with a loss of selection in the 3’ UTR that was previously maintained as coding sequence. Only the 3’UTR of the truncated CRR21 in T. arvense bears recognizable similarity to the C-terminal coding sequences of A. thaliana, and this may reflect a recent truncation event. Finally, analysis of CRR21 genes in sequenced genomes that have a genomic T at ndhD C383 demonstrates that CRR21 truncation is observed in three additional species of the Malpighiales, and that these genes are maintained under strong negative selection for what appears to be an extended period of evolution.

The maintenance of PPR genes responsible for editing and the cis-elements of an editing site appear to involve mutual selective pressure on both components. Loss of an editing site by C-to-T mutation frequently correlates with pseudogene formation or structural changes in the PPR gene. Loss of PPR gene function may result in an unedited C at an editing site.

Molecular evolution of PPR motifs reveals differential selective pressure on helix A and helix B motifs

PPR proteins bind RNA in a sequence specific manner, and recent molecular phylogenetic and modeling analyses have proposed that residues in and near the A helices may be directly involved in RNA binding [35]. Our analyses demonstrate that selective pressure varies across the gene sequences in four plant PPR genes and two mammalian PPR genes, such that helix A sequences are highly restricted in evolution and that helix B sequences are less constrained. Since both the PPR genes and the corresponding cis-elements are under strong negative selection, these results suggest that amino acid residues in the A helices are critical for PPR function. PPR proteins have sequence and predicted secondary structural similarities to the tetratricopeptide repeat (TPR) proteins, and individual PPR domains are proposed to fold into a pair of antiparallel helices (helix A and helix B) connected by a coil to create a structure with two faces (Figure 5D) [34, 36]. Thus, helix A amino acid residues may be involved in RNA binding or substrate recognition.

Recent molecular phylogenetic analyses and protein modeling of PPR genes in a subclass of genes known as Restorer of fertility genes ( Rf type PPR) provide an interesting perspective and contrast to these results [35]. Rf type PPR genes restore fertility to plants that would otherwise exhibit cytoplasmic male sterility ( cms) [6, 40, 41]. The Rf type PPR genes function by recognizing novel mitochondrial transcripts that interfere with pollen formation, and the Rf genes and mitochondrial transcripts co-evolve in a nuclear-organellar arms race of diversifying selection [35]. Some amino acid residues in or near helix A sequences in these Rf genes are under diversifying (positive) selection, apparently in response to changes in the target RNA sequences that may be driven by mutation and recombination. Thus, these residues may be directly involved in RNA binding.

By contrast, the editing-related PPR genes examined in this study have largely evolved in the presence of stable cis-elements and the corresponding PPR genes are under purifying (negative) selection. In this work, helix A sequences have been shown to be highly constrained, and these results taken together with the molecular phylogenetic analysis of the Rf type PPR genes strongly suggest that helix A residues may be involved in RNA binding and substrate recognition.


Our results demonstrate that loss of chloroplast editing sites has several potential outcomes for PPR genes. First, the cognate PPR gene can become a pseudogene. Second, no change in the PPR gene may be observed and the PPR gene architecture is under negative selection for an alternate function. Third, truncations that remove C-terminal domains occurred independently and in similar regions of the CRR21 gene in different lineages. The truncated CRR21 genes are maintained under strong negative selection, and this suggests that they may be maintained for an unrecognized function that is potentially distinct from RNA editing.

Selective pressure differs between individual PPR repeats and within helix A and helix B regions of the PPR repeats. The A helices are under exceptionally strong negative selection compared to B helices. The increased selection strongly suggests that there is a critical role for residues that comprise the helix A, possibly in binding RNA.


Seeds for plant materials

Arabidopsis thaliana col-0 seeds were obtained from Lehle Seeds (Round Rock, TX). Seeds of strains with sequenced chloroplast genomes were obtained from the RIKEN BRC Experimental Plant Division SENDAI Arabidopsis Seed Stock Center (SASSC) for Arabis hirsuta (SJO02300), Crucihimalaya wallichii (SJS00500), Draba nemorosa (SJO02100), Lepidium virginicum (SJO02600), and Olimarabidopsis pumila (SJS00200). The following seeds were obtained from the KEW Gardens Millennium Seed Bank Project: Capsella bursa-pastoris (Serial # 0051714); Nasturtium officinale (Serial #0200327); Matthiola sinuata (Serial #0070591). Seeds for Matthiola longipetala (PI 633271), Matthiola maderensis (PI 650275), Iberis amara (PI 633243), Thlaspi arvense (Ames 29531), Hesperis matronalis (PI 586611), and Istatis tinctoria (Ames 21376) were obtained from the United States Department of Agriculture ARS-GRIN. Raphanus sativum (winter radish) seed came from Samen-Kӧller, Sudtirolerplatz 1, Graz, Austria. Brassica oleracea var. viridis (collards) seeds were purchased from the Ferry-Morse Seed. Co. (Fulton, KY). Seeds were purchased from Johnny’s Selected Seeds (Winslow, ME) for Matthiola incana (Stocks Giant Excelsior Mix), Brassica rapa (Hybrid Chinese cabbage, Napa), Nasturtium officinale (watercress), Barbarea verna (upland cress), and Lepidium sativum (curly cress). Aethionema grandiflorum seed was purchased from Hazzard’s Wholesale Seeds (Deford, Michigan). Seeds for Lobularia maritima ‘New Carpet of Snow’ and Aethionema cordifolium were acquired from (Apple Valley, MN).

PCR amplification and bulk sequencing

Genomic DNA was isolated from green, true leaves using a CTAB method [42]. We used Fermentas DreamTaq Green DNA Polymerase from ThermoFisher (Waltham, MA), 2 ng gDNA, and PCR primers listed in Additional file 6 for PCR amplifications. Ambion Tri-Reagent from Life Technologies (Carlsbad, California) was used to isolate RNA from green, true leaves. We used Fermentas Maxima Reverse Transcriptase from ThermoFisher (Waltham, MA), Random Primers from Promega (Madison, WI), and 1 μg of total RNA to create cDNAs. RT-PCR products were then generated using 2μL of cDNA per 50 μL reaction and appropriate primers listed in Additional file 6. Bulk sequencing was performed at the University of California, Berkeley DNA Sequencing Facility using primers listed in Additional file 6. Quantification of editing was performed using the raw trace file. The Peak height for C and T at the editing site position was measured and percent editing (%T) calculated. Percent editing was rounded to the nearest 10%.

3’-race protocol

We used Fermentas Maxima Reverse Transcriptase from ThermoFisher (Waltham, MA) to create cDNAs using 1 μg of total RNA and primer polyT_KS (Additional file 6). We then used the generated cDNA as template in a PCR reaction using a site specific primer for the PPR and the KS primer from Additional file 6. PCR product from the previous amplification was diluted 1:200 and 1 μL used as template in a second PCR using a nested primer. Products were the sequenced using appropriate nested primers from Additional file 5.

Chromosome walking for 5’ ends

In order to get 5’ flanking sequences for several PPR genes we used a slightly modified the SiteFinding-PCR protocol for chromosome walking [43]. Modifications included using modified primers Sitefinder1, SFP1 and SFP2 for respective random priming, PCR round #1, and PCR round #2. For PCR rounds #1 and #2 nested primers were used listed in Additional file 6. For round #2 two different nested primers were used to yield slightly different size PCR products so bands resulting from specific priming could be easily distinguished

Determination of putative orthologs for PPR genes in brassicaceae

Sequences obtained from PCR and bulk sequencing in Brassicaceae species were inspected for large intact reading frames. Translated ORFs were aligned with Arabidopsis PPR gene sequences using ClustalW. Nucleotide sequences typically shared 70-90% identity with Arabidopsis gene sequences and greater amino acid identity. A neighbor-joining (NJ) phylogenetic tree was constructed using Mega5 with the pairwise deletion parameter selected for gaps/missing data as well as the nucleotide substitution model parameter selected for the Maximum Composite Likelihood Model. Phylogenetic gene trees had similar topology as species trees constructed by [28] and sequences from each PPR formed four distinct clades.

Identification of putative orthologous sequences in sequenced genomes

A. thaliana amino acid sequences from the CRR21 protein model AT5G55740.1 and the OTP82 protein model AT1G08070.1 were queried using TBLATN to all 15 dicot genomes excluding A. thaliana ( Manihot esculenta, Ricinus communis, Populus trichocarpa, Medicago truncatula, Glycine max, Cucumis sativus, Prunus persica, Arabidopsis lyrata, Carica papaya, Citrus sinensis, Citrus clementine, Eucalyptus grandis, Vitis vinifera, Mimulus guttatus, and Aquilegia coerulea) deposited in Phytozome v7.0 at All queries resulted in a single hit with E values of 0 except for in E. grandis for OTP82 where there were two hits to different parts of the genome. A putative ortholog for OTP82 was also found in Solanum lycopersicum sequences available in the NCBI databases using the same methodology. Hits had amino acid identity greater than 50% and were queried using TBLASTN back to A. thaliana. If the reciprocal best hit was to the initial queried gene sequence the gene was considered to be putatively orthologous. The putative orthologs for CRR21 and OTP82 were aligned along with Brassicaceae sequences generated in this survey using ClustalW. A neighbor-joining (NJ) phylogenetic tree was constructed using Mega5 which separated CRR21 and OTP82 sequences into distinct clades. Mammalian putative orthologs to human LRPPRC, PTCD1, and PTCD3 were identified using TBLASTN and reciprocal best hit using the nucleotide sequence collection in the NCBI databases Like the plant sequences putative orthologs had E-values of 0 using TBLASTN and only single hits were found. LRPPRC sequences analyzed were from Ailuropoda melanoleuca, Bos taurus, Callithrix jacchus, Equus caballus, Homo sapiens, Macaca mulatta, Mus musculus, Oryctolagus cuniculus, and Pan troglodytes. Ptcda1 putative orthologs were analyzed from sequences from Monodelphis domestica, A. melanoleuca, B. taurus, C. jacchus, E. caballus, M. mulatta, O. cuniculus, P. troglodytes, H. sapiens, Pongo abelii, Rattus norvegicus, and Sus scrofa. Ptcda3 sequences were from M. domestica, A. melanoleuca, B. taurus, C. jacchus, E. caballus, H. sapiens, M. mulatta, M. musculus, O. cuniculus, P. troglodytes, P. abelii, R. norvegicus, and S. scrofa.

Calculation of dN/dS

Sequences generated in this study and those available in the GenBank databases were used to calculate dN/dS. GenBank accession numbers were assigned to our PPR sequences are listed in Additional file 3. Sequences were aligned using the Clustal W aligner using the default settings within the program BioEdit [44] from A maximum likelihood (ML) phylogenetic gene tree was generated using sequences from each aligned PPR with PHYML using the GTR parameter for the nucleotide substitution model [45]. dN/dS values were calculated from an alignment and phylogentic tree using the program codeml of the PAML suite of programs [46]. For scanning window analysis, a program took a sequence alignment of an entire gene and parsed it into windows of 27 nucleotides with 9 nucleotide increments. Each window of aligned sequences was input into codeml with the phylogenetic tree for the entire gene. For dN/dS analysis of individual PPR domains, repeats were defined using the Uniprot model for each gene For calculations of dN/dS from individual helix A or helix B, secondary structure predictions were made using HHpred and sequences trimmed appropriately [47]. Model 0 of codeml was used to estimate mean dN/dS given the phylogeny. To test if PPRs were significantly different than the average dN/dS for the gene, the parameter ω was set to the average dN/dS calculated for the entire gene and log likelihood was generated for the model. A mean likelihood test was performed to generate p values. To test if dN/dS for helix A is significantly different than helix B, mean dN/dS for the tree was estimated for concatenated helix A and helix B encoding sequences. Then ω was set as the generated value for the opposite helix to get likelihoods for those models. Finally, to test purifying selection for an individual branch for CRR21, we used two models; model 2a which sets the model parameter to 2 and fix_omega to 0; and model 2b which sets the model parameter to 2, fix_omega to 1 and ω = 1.

Protein modeling

We developed structural models for CRR4, CRR21, CLB19, and OTP82 to examine conserved structural features of these proteins. Secondary structural predictions were initially made using HHpred program and generally predicted two anti-parallel helices per PPR [47]. The prediction is in line with consensus model for PPR secondary structure [1, 35, 48]. Secondary and tertiary structural predictions were performed with I-Tasser software that identifies template proteins with similar folds from the PDB library, and predicts a model through a series of protein-modeling algorithms [49]. The E domain was predicted to fold into two sets of antiparallel helices (data not shown), similar to two additional PPRs. Structures were visualized using PyMOL and secondary structure features highlighted.

Species tree

A Brassicaceae species tree was built using chloroplast cDNA sequences obtained for ndhB ndhD ndhG rpoA, and clpP. Sequences were aligned using ClustalW. A ML tree was constructed using PHYML and the GTR nucleotide substitution model. The tree was visualized using MEGA5 [50] and aLRT branch-support numbers [51] are displayed on each branch.


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We would like to thank Dr. Harry Mangalam and Dr. Kevin Thornton for assistance with computation. We also thank Kate Ball and Vy Ly for helping sequence OTP82 analogues from Brassicaceae species and isolating gDNA for Brassicaceae species, respectively. This work was funded by a grant from the NSF (MCB-0929423) to R. Michael Mulligan.

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Correspondence to R Michael Mulligan.

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Authors' contributions

MLH and RMM designed the study and drafted the manuscript. MLH obtained plant materials and developed Methods used in this survey. MLH and KG performed the laboratory work. All authors contributed to the writing of the paper and approve the final version.

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Additional file 1: Distribution of putative editing sites in selected Brassicaceae linages. A table depicts the nucleotide that aligns with an editing site in A. thaliana derived from chloroplast sequences for Brassicaceae species. (XLS 38 KB)


Additional file 2: Alignment of cis -elements for CRR4, CRR21, CLB19, and OTP82. A figure illustrates nucleotide sequences around editing sites targeted by four PPR proteins. Each sequence represents 20 nucleotides upstream and 5 nucleotides downstream of the editing site. The editing sites are indicated capitalized characters. Nucleotides that are 100% conserved are blocked in black. (TIFF 5 MB)


Additional file 3: Genebank accession numbers of analyzed sequences. Genebank accession numbers for sequences of PPR genes determined by this work are provided in a single table. (XLS 29 KB)


Additional file 4: Examination of species with truncated CRR21 genes for potential duplicate copies of CRR21. (DOC 25 KB)


Additional file 5: Rate of evolution of the CRR4 genes in Brassicaceae and PTCD3 in mammals. The dN/dS values for a 27nt window are plotted versus the midpoint position of each window for CRR4 (at top) and PTCD3 (at bottom). Below the nucleotide positions the respective positions of predicted helices are indicated by labeled boxes. (TIFF 4 MB)

Additional file 6: Primers used in this survey. (XLS 38 KB)

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Hayes, M.L., Giang, K. & Mulligan, R.M. Molecular evolution of pentatricopeptide repeat genes reveals truncation in species lacking an editing target and structural domains under distinct selective pressures. BMC Evol Biol 12, 66 (2012).

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