Summary: The two sets of inhibitory and activating natural killer (NK) receptor genes belong either to the Ig or to the C-type lectin superfamilies. Both are extensive and diverse, comprising genes of varying degrees of relatedness, indicative of a process of iterative duplication. We have constructed gene maps to help understand how and when NK receptor genes developed and the nature of their polymorphism. A cluster of over 15 C-type lectin genes, the natural killer complex is located on human chromosome 12p13.1, syntenic with a region in mouse that borders multiple Ly49 loci. The equivalent locus in man is occupied by a single pseudogene, LY49L. The immunoglobulin superfamily of loci, the leukocyte receptor complex (LRC), on chromosome 19q13.4, contains many polymorphic killer cell immunoglobulin-like receptor (KIR) genes as well as multiple related sequences. These include immunoglobulin-like transcript (ILT) (or leukocyte immunoglobulin-like receptor genes), leukocyte-associated inhibitory receptor genes (LAIR), NKp46, FcαR and the platelet glycoprotein receptor VI locus, which encodes a collagen-binding molecule. KIRs are expressed mostly on NK cells and some T cells. The other LRC loci are more widely expressed. Further centromeric of the LRC are sets of additional loci with weak sequence similarity to the KIRs, including the extensive CD66(CEA) and Siglec families. The LRC-syntenic region in mice contains no orthologues of KIRs. Some of the KIR genes are highly polymorphic in terms of sequence as well as for presence/absence of genes on different haplotypes. Some anchor loci, such as KIR2DL4, are present on most haplotypes. A few ILT loci, such as ILT5 and ILT8, are polymorphic, but only ILT6 exhibits presence/absence variation. This knowledge of the genomic organisation of the extensive NK superfamilies underpins efforts to understand the functions of the encoded NK receptor molecules. It leads to the conclusion that the functional homology of human KIR and mouse Ly49 genes arose by convergent evolution. NK receptor immunogenetics has interesting parallels with the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) in which some of the polymorphic genes are ligands for NK molecules. There are hints of an ancient genetic relationship between NK receptor genes and MHC-paralogous regions on chromosomes 1, 9 and 19. The picture that emerges from both complexes is of eternal evolutionary restlessness, presumably in response to resistance to disease.
This work was funded by the Wellcome Trust and the MRC