Nebulin is a skeletal muscle protein that associates with the sarcomeric thin filaments and has functions in regulating the length of the thin filament and the structure of the Z-disk. Here we investigated the nebulin gene in 53 species of birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. In all species, nebulin has a similar domain composition that mostly consists of ∼30-residue modules (or simple repeats), each containing an actin-binding site. All species have a large region where simple repeats are organized into seven-module super-repeats, each containing a tropomyosin binding site. The number of super-repeats shows high interspecies variation, ranging from 21 (zebrafish, hummingbird) to 31 (camel, chimpanzee), and, importantly, scales with body size. The higher number of super-repeats in large animals was shown to increase thin filament length, which is expected to increase the sarcomere length for optimal force production, increase the energy efficiency of isometric force production, and lower the shortening velocity of muscle. It has been known since the work of A.V. Hill in 1950 that as species increase in size, the shortening velocity of their muscle is reduced, and the present work shows that nebulin contributes to the mechanistic basis. Finally, we analyzed the differentially spliced simple repeats in nebulin’s C terminus, whose inclusion correlates with the width of the Z-disk. The number of Z-repeats greatly varies (from 5 to 18) and correlates with the number of super-repeats. We propose that the resulting increase in the width of the Z-disk in large animals increases the number of contacts between nebulin and structural Z-disk proteins when the Z-disk is stressed for long durations.
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