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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1999 Aug 17;96(17):9710-5.

Fifty-million-year-old polymorphism at an immunoglobulin variable region gene locus in the rabbit evolutionary lineage.

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Institute of Molecular Evolutionary Genetics and Department of Biology, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, USA.


The Ig heavy chain variable region (V(H)) genes encode the antigen-binding regions of antibodies. The rabbit genome contains more than 100 V(H) genes, but only one (V(H)1) is preferentially used in the VDJ gene rearrangement. Three highly divergent alleles occur at this V(H)1 locus in most rabbit populations. These three V(H) alleles are also present in snowshoe hare populations, indicating that the polymorphism of the V(H)1 alleles is trans-specific. Here we report the results of a phylogenetic analysis of rabbit Ig germ-line V(H) genes (alleles) together with V(H) genes from humans and mice. We have found that all rabbit V(H) genes belong to one mammalian V(H) group (group C), which also includes various human and mouse V(H) genes. Using the rate of nucleotide substitution obtained from human and mouse V(H) sequences, we have estimated that the V(H)1 polymorphism in the rabbit lineage has been maintained for about 50 million years. This extremely long persistence of V(H)1 polymorphism is apparently caused by overdominant selection, though the real mechanism is unclear.

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