The changing of the guard: Molecular diversity and rapid evolution of β-defensins
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Defensins are small cationic peptides involved in innate immunity and are components of the first line of defence against invading pathogens. β-defensins are a subgroup of the defensin family that display a particular cysteine spacing and pattern of intramolecular bonding. These molecules are produced mostly by epithelia lining exposed surfaces and appear to have both antimicrobial and cell signalling functions. The unusually high degree of sequence variation in the mature peptide produced by the paralogous and in some cases orthologous genes implies extensive specialisation and species specific adaptation. Here we review recent functional data that are an important addition to our knowledge of the innate immune response and novel antibiotic design. We also consider the organisation and evolution of the genomic loci harbouring these genes where radical and rapid changes in β-defensin sequences have been shown to result from the interplay of both positive and negative selection. Consequently these genes provide some unusually clear glimpses of the processes of duplication and specialisation that have shaped the mammalian genome.
Key wordsinnate immunity beta defensins evolution duplication positive selection
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