Current models for the evolution of plant disease resistance (R) genes are based on mechanisms such as unequal crossing-over, gene conversion and point mutations as sources for genetic variability and the generation of new specificities. Size variation in leucine-rich repeat (LRR) domains was previously mainly attributed to unequal crossing-over or template slippage between LRR units. Our analysis of 112 R genes and R gene analogs (RGAs) from 16 different gene lineages from monocots and dicots showed that individual LRR units are mostly too divergent to allow unequal crossing-over. We found that illegitimate recombination (IR) is the major mechanism that generates quasi-random duplications within the LRR domain. These initial duplications are required as seeds for subsequent unequal crossing-over events which cause the observed rapid increase or decrease in LRR repeat numbers. Ten of the 16 gene lineages studied contained such duplications, and in four of them the duplications served as a template for subsequent repeat amplification. Our analysis of Pm3-like genes from rice and three wheat species showed that such events can be traced back more than 50 million years. Thus, IR represents a major new evolutionary mechanism that is essential for the generation of molecular diversity in evolution of RGAs.