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Duplication and selection in the evolution of primate β-defensin genes

Colin AM Semple*, Mark Rolfe and Julia R Dorin

Author Affiliations

MRC Human Genetics Unit, Western General Hospital, Crewe Road, Edinburgh, EH4 2XU, UK

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Genome Biology 2003, 4:R31  doi:10.1186/gb-2003-4-5-r31

Published: 17 April 2003



Innate immunity is the first line of defense against microorganisms in vertebrates and acts by providing an initial barrier to microorganisms and triggering adaptive immune responses. Peptides such as β-defensins are an important component of this defense, providing a broad spectrum of antimicrobial activity against bacteria, fungi, mycobacteria and several enveloped viruses. β-defensins are small cationic peptides that vary in their expression patterns and spectrum of pathogen specificity. Disruptions in β-defensin function have been implicated in human diseases, including cystic fibrosis, and a fuller understanding of the variety, function and evolution of human β-defensins might form the basis for novel therapies. Here we use a combination of laboratory and computational techniques to characterize the main human β-defensin locus on chromosome 8p22-p23.


In addition to known genes in the region we report the genomic structures and expression patterns of four novel human β-defensin genes and a related pseudogene. These genes show an unusual pattern of evolution, with rapid divergence between second exon sequences that encode the mature β-defensin peptides matched by relative stasis in first exons that encode signal peptides.


We conclude that the 8p22-p23 locus has evolved by successive rounds of duplication followed by substantial divergence involving positive selection, to produce a diverse cluster of paralogous genes established before the human-baboon divergence more than 23 million years ago. Positive selection, disproportionately favoring alterations in the charge of amino-acid residues, is implicated as driving second exon divergence in these genes.