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Nat Rev Immunol. 2013 Feb;13(2):133-44. doi: 10.1038/nri3370. Epub 2013 Jan 21.

Variable NK cell receptors and their MHC class I ligands in immunity, reproduction and human evolution.

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Department of Structural Biology, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305, USA.


Natural killer (NK) cells have roles in immunity and reproduction that are controlled by variable receptors that recognize MHC class I molecules. The variable NK cell receptors found in humans are specific to simian primates, in which they have progressively co-evolved with MHC class I molecules. The emergence of the MHC-C gene in hominids drove the evolution of a system of NK cell receptors for MHC-C molecules that is most elaborate in chimpanzees. By contrast, the human system of MHC-C receptors seems to have been subject to different selection pressures that have acted in competition on the immunological and reproductive functions of MHC class I molecules. We suggest that this compromise facilitated the development of the bigger brains that enabled archaic and modern humans to migrate out of Africa and populate other continents.

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