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Annu Rev Immunol. 2003;21:629-57. Epub 2001 Dec 19.

Genomic organization of the mammalian MHC.

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Center for Immunology University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas 75390-9050, USA.


The Human Genome Project transformed the quest of more than 50 years to understand the major histocompatibility complex (Mhc). The sequence of the Mhc from human and mouse, together with a large amount of sequence and mapping information from several other species, allows us to draw general conclusions about the organization and origin of this crucial part of the immune system. The Mhc is a mosaic of stretches formed by conserved and nonconserved genes. Surprisingly, of the approximately 3.6-Mb Mhc, the stretches that encode the class I and class II genes, which epitomize the Mhc, are the least conserved part, whereas the approximately 1.7-Mb stretches that encode at least 115 other genes are highly conserved. We summarize the available data to answer the questions (a) What is the Mhc? and (b) How can we define it in a general, not species-specific, way? Knowing what is essential and what is incidental helps us understand the fundamentals of the Mhc, and defining the species differences makes the model organisms more useful.

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