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Genome Biol. 2003;4(5):R31. Epub 2003 Apr 17.

Duplication and selection in the evolution of primate beta-defensin genes.

Author information

  • 1MRC Human Genetics Unit, Western General Hospital, Crewe Road, Edinburgh, EH4 2XU, UK. Colin.Semple@hgu.mrc.ac.uk



Innate immunity is the first line of defense against microorganisms in vertebrates and acts by providing an initial barrier to microorganisms and triggering adaptive immune responses. Peptides such as beta-defensins are an important component of this defense, providing a broad spectrum of antimicrobial activity against bacteria, fungi, mycobacteria and several enveloped viruses. Beta-defensins are small cationic peptides that vary in their expression patterns and spectrum of pathogen specificity. Disruptions in beta-defensin function have been implicated in human diseases, including cystic fibrosis, and a fuller understanding of the variety, function and evolution of human beta-defensins might form the basis for novel therapies. Here we use a combination of laboratory and computational techniques to characterize the main human beta-defensin locus on chromosome 8p22-p23.


In addition to known genes in the region we report the genomic structures and expression patterns of four novel human beta-defensin genes and a related pseudogene. These genes show an unusual pattern of evolution, with rapid divergence between second exon sequences that encode the mature beta-defensin peptides matched by relative stasis in first exons that encode signal peptides.


We conclude that the 8p22-p23 locus has evolved by successive rounds of duplication followed by substantial divergence involving positive selection, to produce a diverse cluster of paralogous genes established before the human-baboon divergence more than 23 million years ago. Positive selection, disproportionately favoring alterations in the charge of amino-acid residues, is implicated as driving second exon divergence in these genes.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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