Defensin genes encode small cationic antimicrobial peptides that form an important part of the innate immune system. They are divided into three families, alpha (α), beta (β), and theta (θ), according to arrangement of the disulfide bonding pattern between cysteine residues. Considering the functional importance of defensins, investigators have studied the evolution and the genomic organization of defensin genes. However, these studies have been restricted mainly to β-defensins. To understand the evolutionary dynamics of α-defensin genes among primates, we identified the α-defensin repertoires in human, chimpanzee, orangutan, macaque, and marmoset. The α-defensin genes in primates can be classified into three phylogenetic classes (class I, II, and III). The presence of all three classes in the marmoset indicates that their divergence occurred before the separation of New World and Old World monkeys. Comparative analysis of the α-defensin genomic clusters suggests that the makeup of the α-defensin gene repertoires between primates is quite different, as their genes have undergone dramatic birth-and-death evolution. Analysis of the encoded peptides of the α-defensin genes indicates that despite the overall high level of sequence divergence, certain amino acid residues or motifs are conserved within and between the three phylogenetic classes. The evolution of α-defensins in primates, therefore, appears to be governed by two opposing evolutionary forces. One force stabilizes specific amino acid residues and motifs to preserve the functional and structural integrity of the molecules and the other diversifies the sequences generating molecules with a wide range of activities against a large number of pathogens.
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