The gene family of killer cell immunoglobulin-like receptors (KIRs) in primates provides the first line of defense against virus infection and tumor transformation. Interacting with MHC class I molecules, KIRs can regulate the cytotoxic activity of natural killer (NK) cells and distinguish the tumor and virus infected cells from normal body cells. Phylogenetic analysis and comparison of domain structures identified three major groups of KIR genes (group I, II, and III genes). These groups of KIR genes, generated by a series of gene duplications, have acquired different MHC-binding specificity. Inference of ancestral KIR sequences suggested that the functional divergence of group I genes from group II genes occurred by positive selection at the MHC-binding sites after duplication. Our evolutionary study has shown that group I genes diverged from group II genes about 17 million years ago (Mya) apparently after separation of hominoids from Old World (OW) monkeys. Around the same time, gene duplication generating the class I MHC-C locus appears to have occurred. These findings suggest that KIR and MHC class I genes have coevolved as an interacting system. The KIR gene family has experienced a rapid expansion in primate species. The rate of expansion of this gene family seems to be one of the highest among all hominoid gene families. The KIR gene family is also subject to birth-and-death evolution.
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