Evolutionary Profile for (Host and Viral) MLKL Indicates Its Activities as a Battlefront for Extensive Counteradaptation

Suzette N. Palmer, Sruthi Chappidi, Chelsea Pinkham, Dustin C. Hancks

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Pathogen infection triggers host innate defenses which may result in the activation of regulated cell death (RCD) pathways such as apoptosis. Given a vital role in immunity, apoptotic effectors are often counteracted by pathogen-encoded antagonists. Mounting evidence indicates that programmed necrosis, which is mediated by the RIPK3/MLKL axis and termed necroptosis, evolved as a countermeasure to pathogen-mediated inhibition of apoptosis. Yet, it is unclear whether components of this emerging RCD pathway display signatures associated with pathogen conflict that are rare in combination but common to key host defense factors, namely, rapid evolution, viral homolog (virolog), and cytokine induction. We leveraged evolutionary sequence analysis that examines rates of amino acid replacement, which revealed: 1) strong and recurrent signatures of positive selection for primate and bat RIPK3 and MLKL, and 2) elevated rates of amino acid substitution on multiple RIPK3/MLKL surfaces suggestive of past antagonism with multiple, distinct pathogen-encoded inhibitors. Furthermore, our phylogenomics analysis across poxvirus genomes illuminated volatile patterns of evolution for a recently described MLKL viral homolog. Specifically, poxviral MLKLs have undergone numerous gene replacements mediated by duplication and deletion events. In addition, MLKL protein expression is stimulated by interferons in human and mouse cells. Thus, MLKL displays all three hallmarks of pivotal immune factors of which only a handful of factors like OAS1 exhibit. These data support the hypothesis that over evolutionary time MLKL functions—which may include execution of necroptosis—have served as a major determinant of infection outcomes despite gene loss in some host genomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5405-5422
Number of pages18
JournalMolecular biology and evolution
Issue number12
StatePublished - 2021


  • MLKL
  • Necroptosis
  • Phylogenetics
  • Poxvirus
  • RIPK3
  • Synteny

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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