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1.  A Novel System of Polymorphic and Diverse NK Cell Receptors in Primates 
PLoS Genetics  2009;5(10):e1000688.
There are two main classes of natural killer (NK) cell receptors in mammals, the killer cell immunoglobulin-like receptors (KIR) and the structurally unrelated killer cell lectin-like receptors (KLR). While KIR represent the most diverse group of NK receptors in all primates studied to date, including humans, apes, and Old and New World monkeys, KLR represent the functional equivalent in rodents. Here, we report a first digression from this rule in lemurs, where the KLR (CD94/NKG2) rather than KIR constitute the most diverse group of NK cell receptors. We demonstrate that natural selection contributed to such diversification in lemurs and particularly targeted KLR residues interacting with the peptide presented by MHC class I ligands. We further show that lemurs lack a strict ortholog or functional equivalent of MHC-E, the ligands of non-polymorphic KLR in “higher” primates. Our data support the existence of a hitherto unknown system of polymorphic and diverse NK cell receptors in primates and of combinatorial diversity as a novel mechanism to increase NK cell receptor repertoire.
Author Summary
Most receptors of natural killer (NK) cells interact with highly polymorphic major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class I molecules and thereby regulate the activity of NK cells against infected or malignant target cells. Whereas humans, apes, and Old and New World monkeys use the family of killer cell immunoglobulin-like receptors (KIR) as highly diverse NK cell receptors, this function is performed in rodents by the diverse family of lectin-like receptors Ly49. When did this functional separation occur in evolution? We followed this by investigating lemurs, primates that are distantly related to humans. We show here that lemurs employ the CD94/NKG2 family as their highly diversified NK cell receptors. The CD94/NKG2 receptors also belong to the lectin-like receptor family, but are rather conserved in “higher” primates and rodents. We could further demonstrate that lemurs have a single Ly49 gene like other primates but lack functional KIR genes of the KIR3DL lineage and show major deviations in their MHC class I genomic organisation. Thus, lemurs have evolved a “third way” of polymorphic and diverse NK cell receptors. In addition, the multiplied lemur CD94/NKG2 receptors can be freely combined, thereby forming diverse receptors. This is, therefore, the first description of some combinatorial diversity of NK cell receptors.
PMCID: PMC2757895  PMID: 19834558
2.  A high resolution HLA and SNP haplotype map for disease association studies in the extended human MHC 
Nature genetics  2006;38(10):1166-1172.
The proteins encoded by the classical HLA class I and class II genes in the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) are highly polymorphic and play an essential role in self/non-self immune recognition. HLA variation is a crucial determinant of transplant rejection and susceptibility to a large number of infectious and autoimmune disease1. Yet identification of causal variants is problematic due to linkage disequilibrium (LD) that extends across multiple HLA and non-HLA genes in the MHC2,3. We therefore set out to characterize the LD patterns between the highly polymorphic HLA genes and background variation by typing the classical HLA genes and >7,500 common single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and deletion/insertion polymorphisms (DIPs) across four population samples. The analysis provides informative tag SNPs that capture some of the variation in the MHC region and that could be used in initial disease association studies, and provides new insight into the evolutionary dynamics and ancestral origins of the HLA loci and their haplotypes.
PMCID: PMC2670196  PMID: 16998491
3.  Identification of the ancestral killer immunoglobulin-like receptor gene in primates 
BMC Genomics  2006;7:209.
Killer Immunoglobulin-like Receptors (KIR) are essential immuno-surveillance molecules. They are expressed on natural killer and T cells, and interact with human leukocyte antigens. KIR genes are highly polymorphic and contribute vital variability to our immune system. Numerous KIR genes, belonging to five distinct lineages, have been identified in all primates examined thus far and shown to be rapidly evolving. Since few KIR remain orthologous between species, with only one of them, KIR2DL4, shown to be common to human, apes and monkeys, the evolution of the KIR gene family in primates remains unclear.
Using comparative analyses, we have identified the ancestral KIR lineage (provisionally named KIR3DL0) in primates. We show KIR3DL0 to be highly conserved with the identification of orthologues in human (Homo sapiens), common chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), gorilla (Gorilla gorilla), rhesus monkey (Macaca mulatta) and common marmoset (Callithrix jacchus). We predict KIR3DL0 to encode a functional molecule in all primates by demonstrating expression in human, chimpanzee and rhesus monkey. Using the rhesus monkey as a model, we further show the expression profile to be typical of KIR by quantitative measurement of KIR3DL0 from an enriched population of natural killer cells.
One reason why KIR3DL0 may have escaped discovery for so long is that, in human, it maps in between two related leukocyte immunoglobulin-like receptor clusters outside the known KIR gene cluster on Chromosome 19. Based on genomic, cDNA, expression and phylogenetic data, we report a novel lineage of immunoglobulin receptors belonging to the KIR family, which is highly conserved throughout 50 million years of primate evolution.
PMCID: PMC1559706  PMID: 16911775
4.  Genetic Analysis of Completely Sequenced Disease-Associated MHC Haplotypes Identifies Shuffling of Segments in Recent Human History 
PLoS Genetics  2006;2(1):e9.
The major histocompatibility complex (MHC) is recognised as one of the most important genetic regions in relation to common human disease. Advancement in identification of MHC genes that confer susceptibility to disease requires greater knowledge of sequence variation across the complex. Highly duplicated and polymorphic regions of the human genome such as the MHC are, however, somewhat refractory to some whole-genome analysis methods. To address this issue, we are employing a bacterial artificial chromosome (BAC) cloning strategy to sequence entire MHC haplotypes from consanguineous cell lines as part of the MHC Haplotype Project. Here we present 4.25 Mb of the human haplotype QBL (HLA-A26-B18-Cw5-DR3-DQ2) and compare it with the MHC reference haplotype and with a second haplotype, COX (HLA-A1-B8-Cw7-DR3-DQ2), that shares the same HLA-DRB1, -DQA1, and -DQB1 alleles. We have defined the complete gene, splice variant, and sequence variation contents of all three haplotypes, comprising over 259 annotated loci and over 20,000 single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). Certain coding sequences vary significantly between different haplotypes, making them candidates for functional and disease-association studies. Analysis of the two DR3 haplotypes allowed delineation of the shared sequence between two HLA class II–related haplotypes differing in disease associations and the identification of at least one of the sites that mediated the original recombination event. The levels of variation across the MHC were similar to those seen for other HLA-disparate haplotypes, except for a 158-kb segment that contained the HLA-DRB1, -DQA1, and -DQB1 genes and showed very limited polymorphism compatible with identity-by-descent and relatively recent common ancestry (<3,400 generations). These results indicate that the differential disease associations of these two DR3 haplotypes are due to sequence variation outside this central 158-kb segment, and that shuffling of ancestral blocks via recombination is a potential mechanism whereby certain DR–DQ allelic combinations, which presumably have favoured immunological functions, can spread across haplotypes and populations.
A group of genes involved in the human immune system are contained within a surprisingly short section of Chromosome 6 that has long been recognised as the most important genomic region in relation to disease susceptibility. Discerning the actual genes playing a role in disease has proved difficult mainly because the region contains numerous genes and is also the most genetically variable in the genome. Within this jungle of variation, the research reported here has identified and characterised a discrete segment shared by two individuals that is virtually devoid of variation—a polymorphism desert. The conservation of this segment amongst a background of extreme variation suggests both an ancient origin and genetic exchange in early human history. These observations are important in evolutionary terms as they reveal a potential mechanism whereby certain genetic segments associated with favourable immune functions have spread across human populations. Within medical terms this may also explain contrasting disease risks in people from different ethnic backgrounds. Public access to these data will help researchers find specific variants conferring disease susceptibility or resistance and, as in this report, rule out regions for conveying specificity to certain diseases.
PMCID: PMC1331980  PMID: 16440057

Results 1-4 (4)