Open Access Research article

A genome-wide screen identifies a single β-defensin gene cluster in the chicken: implications for the origin and evolution of mammalian defensins

Yanjing Xiao1, Austin L Hughes2, Junko Ando3, Yoichi Matsuda3, Jan-Fang Cheng4, Donald Skinner-Noble1 and Guolong Zhang1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Animal Science, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK 74078, USA

2 Department of Biological Sciences, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC 29208, USA

3 Center for Advanced Science and Technology, Hokkaido University, Sapporo 060-0810, Japan

4 Department of Genome Sciences, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA 94720, USA

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BMC Genomics 2004, 5:56  doi:10.1186/1471-2164-5-56

Published: 13 August 2004



Defensins comprise a large family of cationic antimicrobial peptides that are characterized by the presence of a conserved cysteine-rich defensin motif. Based on the spacing pattern of cysteines, these defensins are broadly divided into five groups, namely plant, invertebrate, α-, β-, and θ-defensins, with the last three groups being mostly found in mammalian species. However, the evolutionary relationships among these five groups of defensins remain controversial.


Following a comprehensive screen, here we report that the chicken genome encodes a total of 13 different β-defensins but with no other groups of defensins being discovered. These chicken β-defensin genes, designated as Gallinacin 1–13, are clustered densely within a 86-Kb distance on the chromosome 3q3.5-q3.7. The deduced peptides vary from 63 to 104 amino acid residues in length sharing the characteristic defensin motif. Based on the tissue expression pattern, 13 β-defensin genes can be divided into two subgroups with Gallinacin 1–7 being predominantly expressed in bone marrow and the respiratory tract and the remaining genes being restricted to liver and the urogenital tract. Comparative analysis of the defensin clusters among chicken, mouse, and human suggested that vertebrate defensins have evolved from a single β-defensin-like gene, which has undergone rapid duplication, diversification, and translocation in various vertebrate lineages during evolution.


We conclude that the chicken genome encodes only β-defensin sequences and that all mammalian defensins are evolved from a common β-defensin-like ancestor. The α-defensins arose from β-defensins by gene duplication, which may have occurred after the divergence of mammals from other vertebrates, and θ-defensins have arisen from α-defensins specific to the primate lineage. Further analysis of these defensins in different vertebrate lineages will shed light on the mechanisms of host defense and evolution of innate immunity.