Rapid evolution and diversification of mammalian alpha-defensins as revealed by comparative analysis of rodent and primate genes

Physiol Genomics. 2004 Dec 15;20(1):1-11. doi: 10.1152/physiolgenomics.00150.2004. Epub 2004 Oct 19.


Mammalian alpha-defensins constitute a family of cysteine-rich, cationic antimicrobial peptides produced by phagocytes and intestinal Paneth cells, playing an important role in innate host defense. Following comprehensive computational searches, here we report the discovery of complete repertoires of the alpha-defensin gene family in the human, chimpanzee, rat, and mouse with new genes identified in each species. The human genome was found to encode a cluster of 10 distinct alpha-defensin genes and pseudogenes expanding 132 kb continuously on chromosome 8p23. Such alpha-defensin loci are also conserved in the syntenic chromosomal regions of chimpanzee, rat, and mouse. Phylogenetic analyses showed formation of two distinct clusters with primate alpha-defensins forming one cluster and rodent enteric alpha-defensins forming the other cluster. Species-specific clustering of genes is evident in nonprimate species but not in the primates. Phylogenetically distinct subsets of alpha-defensins also exist in each species, with most subsets containing multiple members. In addition, natural selection appears to have acted to diversify the functionally active mature defensin region but not signal or prosegment sequences. We concluded that mammalian alpha-defensin genes may have evolved from two separate ancestors originated from beta-defensins. The current repertoires of the alpha-defensin gene family in each species are primarily a result of repeated gene duplication and positive diversifying selection after divergence of mammalian species from each other, except for the primate genes, which were evolved prior to the separation of the primate species. We argue that the presence of multiple, divergent subsets of alpha-defensins in each species may help animals to better cope with different microbial challenges in the ecological niches which they inhabit.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Antimicrobial Cationic Peptides / chemistry
  • Computational Biology / methods
  • Cysteine / chemistry
  • DNA Primers / chemistry
  • DNA, Complementary / metabolism
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Exons
  • Genome
  • Genome, Human
  • Genomics / methods*
  • Humans
  • Internet
  • Mice
  • Models, Genetic
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Multigene Family
  • Pan troglodytes
  • Phylogeny
  • Rats
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Sequence Homology, Amino Acid
  • Species Specificity
  • Tissue Distribution
  • alpha-Defensins / genetics
  • beta-Defensins / genetics


  • Antimicrobial Cationic Peptides
  • DNA Primers
  • DNA, Complementary
  • alpha-Defensins
  • beta-Defensins
  • Cysteine