BACKGROUND: The eukaryotic ubiquitin-conjugation system sets the turnover rate of many proteins and includes activating enzymes (E1s), conjugating enzymes (UBCs/E2s), and ubiquitin-protein ligases (E3s), which are responsible for activation, covalent attachment and substrate recognition, respectively. There are also ubiquitin-like proteins with distinct functions, which require their own E1s and E2s for attachment. We describe the results of RNA interference (RNAi) experiments on the E1s, UBC/E2s and ubiquitin-like proteins in Caenorhabditis elegans. We also present a phylogenetic analysis of UBCs. RESULTS: The C. elegans genome encodes 20 UBCs and three ubiquitin E2 variant proteins. RNAi shows that only four UBCs are essential for embryogenesis: LET-70 (UBC-2), a functional homolog of yeast Ubc4/5p, UBC-9, an ortholog of yeast Ubc9p, which transfers the ubiquitin-like modifier SUMO, UBC-12, an ortholog of yeast Ubc12p, which transfers the ubiquitin-like modifier Rub1/Nedd8, and UBC-14, an ortholog of Drosophila Courtless. RNAi of ubc-20, an ortholog of yeast UBC1, results in a low frequency of arrested larval development. A phylogenetic analysis of C. elegans, Drosophila and human UBCs shows that this protein family can be divided into 18 groups, 13 of which include members from all three species. The activating enzymes and the ubiquitin-like proteins NED-8 and SUMO are required for embryogenesis. CONCLUSIONS: The number of UBC genes appears to increase with developmental complexity, and our results suggest functional overlap in many of these enzymes. The ubiquitin-like proteins NED-8 and SUMO and their corresponding activating enzymes are required for embryogenesis.
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