AGO family proteins play many roles in epigenetic programming, genome rearrangement, mRNA breakdown, inhibition of translation, and transposon silencing. Despite being a hotspot in current scientific research, their evolutionary history is still poorly understood and consequently the identification of evolutionary conserved structural features should also generate useful information for better understanding their functions. We report here for the first time the transcript sets of the two subfamilies, Ago and Piwi, in the West African lungfish Protopterus annectens and in the Indonesian coelacanth Latimeria menadoensis, two key species in the evolutionary lineage leading to tetrapods. The phylogenetic analysis of 142 inferred protein sequences in 22 fully sequenced species and the analysis of microsynteny performed in the major vertebrate lineages indicate an intricate pattern for the evolution of both subfamilies that has been shaped by whole genome duplications and lineage specific gains and losses. The argonaute subfamily was additionally expanded by local gene duplications at the base of the jawed vertebrate lineage. The subfamily of Piwi proteins is involved in several processes such as spermatogenesis, piRNA biogenesis, and transposon repression. Expression assessment of AGO genes and genes coding for proteins involved in small RNA biogenesis suggests a limited activity of the Piwi pathway in lungfish in agreement with the lungfish genome containing mainly old and inactive transposons.

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