Cysteine Enrichment Mediates Co-Option of Uricase in Reptilian Skin and Transition to Uricotelism

Giulia Mori, Anastasia Liuzzi, Luca Ronda, Michele Di Palma, Magda S. Chegkazi, Soi Bui, Mitla Garcia-Maya, Jasmine Ragazzini, Marco Malatesta, Emanuele Della Monica, Claudio Rivetti, Parker B. Antin, Stefano Bettati, Roberto A. Steiner, Riccardo Percudani

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Uric acid is the main means of nitrogen excretion in uricotelic vertebrates (birds and reptiles) and the end product of purine catabolism in humans and a few other mammals. While uricase is inactivated in mammals unable to degrade urate, the presence of orthologous genes without inactivating mutations in avian and reptilian genomes is unexplained. Here we show that the Gallus gallus gene we name cysteine-rich urate oxidase (CRUOX) encodes a functional protein representing a unique case of cysteine enrichment in the evolution of vertebrate orthologous genes. CRUOX retains the ability to catalyze urate oxidation to hydrogen peroxide and 5-hydroxyisourate (HIU), albeit with a 100-fold reduced efficiency. However, differently from all uricases hitherto characterized, it can also facilitate urate regeneration from HIU, a catalytic property that we propose depends on its enrichment in cysteine residues. X-ray structural analysis highlights differences in the active site compared to known orthologs and suggests a mechanism for cysteine-mediated self-aggregation under H2O2-oxidative conditions. Cysteine enrichment was concurrent with the transition to uricotelism and a shift in gene expression from the liver to the skin where CRUOX is co-expressed with β-keratins. Therefore, the loss of urate degradation in amniotes has followed opposite evolutionary trajectories: while uricase has been eliminated by pseudogenization in some mammals, it has been repurposed as a redox-sensitive enzyme in the reptilian skin.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbermsad200
JournalMolecular biology and evolution
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1 2023


  • metabolic adaptation
  • nitrogen elimination
  • orthologous gene divergence
  • sauropsids
  • uricase

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics

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