Adaptation and constraint at Toll-like receptors in primates

Mol Biol Evol. 2010 Sep;27(9):2172-86. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msq104. Epub 2010 Apr 21.


Frequent positive selection is a hallmark of genes involved in the adaptive immune system of vertebrates, but the incidence of positive selection for genes underlying innate immunity in vertebrates has not been well studied. The toll-like receptors (TLRs) of the innate immune system represent the first line of defense against pathogens. TLRs lie directly at the host-environment interface, and they target microbial molecules. Because of this, they might be subject to frequent positive selection due to coevolutionary dynamics with their microbial counterparts. However, they also recognize conserved molecular motifs, and this might constrain their evolution. Here, we investigate the evolution of the ten human TLRs in the framework of these competing ideas. We studied rates of protein evolution among primate species and we analyzed patterns of polymorphism in humans and chimpanzees. This provides a window into TLR evolution at both long and short timescales. We found a clear signature of positive selection in the rates of substitution across primates in most TLRs. Some of the implicated sites fall in structurally important protein domains, involve radical amino acid changes, or overlap with polymorphisms with known clinical associations in humans. However, within species, patterns of nucleotide variation were generally compatible with purifying selection, and these patterns differed between humans and chimpanzees and between viral and nonviral TLRs. Thus, adaptive evolution at TLRs does not appear to reflect a constant turnover of alleles and instead might be more episodic in nature. This pattern is consistent with more ephemeral pathogen-host associations rather than with long-term coevolution.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Humans
  • Primates / genetics*
  • Toll-Like Receptors / classification
  • Toll-Like Receptors / genetics*


  • Toll-Like Receptors