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Hum Mol Genet. 2005 Jul 15;14(14):2045-52. Epub 2005 Jun 8.

Copy number polymorphism and expression level variation of the human alpha-defensin genes DEFA1 and DEFA3.

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Institute of Genetics, University of Nottingham, Queen's Medical Centre, UK.


We have defined unexpectedly extensive copy number variation at the human anti-microbial alpha-defensin genes DEFA1 and DEFA3, encoding human neutrophil peptides HNP-1, HNP-2 and HNP-3. There was variation in both number and position of DEFA1/DEFA3 genes in arrays of 19 kb tandem repeats on 8p23.1, so that the DEFA1 and DEFA3 genes appear to be interchangeable variant cassettes within tandem gene arrays. For this reason, the official symbol for this locus has been revised to DEFA1A3. The total number of gene copies per diploid genome varied between four and 11 in a sample of 111 control individuals from the UK, with approximately 10% (11/111) of people lacking DEFA3 completely. DEFA1 appeared to be at high copy number in all great apes studied; at one variable site in the repeat unit, both variants have persisted in humans, chimpanzees and gorillas since their divergence. Analysis of expression levels in human white blood cells showed a clear correlation between the relative proportions of DEFA1:DEFA3 mRNA and corresponding gene numbers. However, there was no relationship between total (DEFA1+DEFA3) mRNA levels and total gene copy number, suggesting the superimposed influence of trans-acting factors. The persistence of DEFA1 at high copy number in other apes suggests an alternative model for the early stages of the evolution of novel genes by duplication and divergence. Duplicated genes present in variant tandem arrays may have greater potential than simple duplications for the combinatorial creation of new functions by recombination and gene conversion, while still preserving pre-existing functions on the same haplotype.

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