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Genome Biol Evol. 2013;5(3):559-71. doi: 10.1093/gbe/evt029.

Evolutionary constraints in the β-globin cluster: the signature of purifying selection at the δ-globin (HBD) locus and its role in developmental gene regulation.

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Institute of Molecular Pathology and Immunology of University of Porto (IPATIMUP), Porto, Portugal.


Human hemoglobins, the oxygen carriers in the blood, are composed by two α-like and two β-like globin monomers. The β-globin gene cluster located at 11p15.5 comprises one pseudogene and five genes whose expression undergoes two critical switches: the embryonic-to-fetal and fetal-to-adult transition. HBD encodes the δ-globin chain of the minor adult hemoglobin (HbA2), which is assumed to be physiologically irrelevant. Paradoxically, reduced diversity levels have been reported for this gene. In this study, we sought a detailed portrait of the genetic variation within the β-globin cluster in a large human population panel from different geographic backgrounds. We resequenced the coding and noncoding regions of the two adult β-globin genes (HBD and HBB) in European and African populations, and analyzed the data from the β-globin cluster (HBE, HBG2, HBG1, HBBP1, HBD, and HBB) in 1,092 individuals representing 14 populations sequenced as part of the 1000 Genomes Project. Additionally, we assessed the diversity levels in nonhuman primates using chimpanzee sequence data provided by the PanMap Project. Comprehensive analyses, based on classic neutrality tests, empirical and haplotype-based studies, revealed that HBD and its neighbor pseudogene HBBP1 have mainly evolved under purifying selection, suggesting that their roles are essential and nonredundant. Moreover, in the light of recent studies on the chromatin conformation of the β-globin cluster, we present evidence sustaining that the strong functional constraints underlying the decreased contemporary diversity at these two regions were not driven by protein function but instead are likely due to a regulatory role in ontogenic switches of gene expression.

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