A comprehensive, structural and functional, in silico analysis of the medium-chain dehydrogenase/reductase (MDR) superfamily, including 583 proteins, was carried out by use of extensive database mining and the blastp program in an iterative manner to identify all known members of the superfamily. Based on phylogenetic, sequence, and functional similarities, the protein members of the MDR superfamily were classified into three different taxonomic categories: (a) subfamilies, consisting of a closed group containing a set of ideally orthologous proteins that perform the same function; (b) families, each comprising a cluster of monophyletic subfamilies that possess significant sequence identity among them and might share or not common substrates or mechanisms of reaction; and (c) macrofamilies, each comprising a cluster of monophyletic protein families with protein members from the three domains of life, which includes at least one subfamily member that displays activity related to a very ancient metabolic pathway. In this context, a superfamily is a group of homologous protein families (and/or macrofamilies) with monophyletic origin that shares at least a barely detectable sequence similarity, but showing the same 3D fold.
The MDR superfamily encloses three macrofamilies, with eight families and 49 subfamilies. These subfamilies exhibit great functional diversity including noncatalytic members with different subcellular, phylogenetic, and species distributions. This results from constant enzymogenesis and proteinogenesis within each kingdom, and highlights the huge plasticity that MDR superfamily members possess. Thus, through evolution a great number of taxa-specific new functions were acquired by MDRs. The generation of new functions fulfilled by proteins, can be considered as the essence of protein evolution. The mechanisms of protein evolution inside MDR are not constrained to conserve substrate specificity and/or chemistry of catalysis. In consequence, MDR functional diversity is more complex than sequence diversity.
MDR is a very ancient protein superfamily that existed in the last universal common ancestor. It had at least two (and probably three) different ancestral activities related to formaldehyde metabolism and alcoholic fermentation. Eukaryotic members of this superfamily are more related to bacterial than to archaeal members; horizontal gene transfer among the domains of life appears to be a rare event in modern organisms.