Signal Sequence Conservation and Mature Peptide Divergence Within Subgroups of the Murine β-Defensin Gene Family

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β-defensins are two exon genes which encode broad spectrum antimicrobial cationic peptides. We have analyzed the largest murine cluster of these genes which localizes to chromosome 8. Using hidden Markov models, we identified six β-defensin exon 2–like sequences and subsequently found full-length expressed transcripts for these novel genes. Expression was high in brain and reproductive tissues. Eleven β-defensins could be grouped into two clear subgroups by virtue of their position and high signal sequence (exon 1 encoded) identity. In contrast, however, there was a very low level of sequence conservation in the exon 2 region encoding the mature antimicrobial peptide. Examination of the gene sequences of orthologs in other rodents also revealed an excess of nucleotide changes that altered amino acids in the mature peptide region. Evolutionary analysis revealed strong evidence that following gene duplication, exon 1 and surrounding noncoding DNA show little divergence within subgroups. The focus for rapid sequence divergence is localized in the DNA encoding the mature peptide and this is driven by accelerated positive selection. This mechanism of evolution is consistent with the role of this gene family as defense against bacterial pathogens and the sequence changes have implications for novel antibiotic design.

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