Voltage-dependent sodium channels are believed to have evolved from calcium channels at the origin of the nervous system. A search of the genome of a single-celled choanoflagellate (the sister group of animals) identified a gene that is homologous to animal sodium channels and has a putative ion selectivity filter intermediate between calcium and sodium channels. Searches of a wide variety of animal genomes, including representatives of each basal lineage, revealed that similar homologs were retained in most lineages. One of these, the Placozoa, does not possess a nervous system. We cloned and sequenced the full choanoflagellate channel and parts of two placozoan channels from mRNA, showing that they are expressed. Phylogenetic analysis clusters the genes for these channels with other known sodium channels. From this phylogeny we infer ancestral states of the ion selectivity filter and show that this state has been retained in the choanoflagellate and placozoan channels. We also identify key gene duplications and losses and show convergent amino acid replacements at important points along the animal lineage.
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