Clusters of resistance genes in plants evolve by divergent selection and a birth-and-death process

Richard W. Michelmore, Blake C. Meyers

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

831 Scopus citations


Classical genetic and molecular data show that genes determining disease resistance in plants are frequently clustered in the genome. Genes for resistance (R genes) to diverse pathogens cloned from several species encode proteins that have motifs in common. These motifs indicate that R genes are part of signal-transduction systems. Most of these R genes encode a leucine-rich repeat (LRR) region. Sequences encoding putative solvent-exposed residues in this region are hypervariable and have elevated ratios of nonsynonymous to synonymous substitutions; this suggests that they have evolved to detect variation in pathogen-derived ligands. Generation of new resistance specificities previously had been thought to involve frequent unequal crossing-over and gene conversions. However, comparisons between resistance haplotypes reveal that orthologs are more similar than paralogs implying a low rate of sequence homogenization from unequal crossing-over and gene conversion. We propose a new model adapted and expanded from one proposed for the evolution of vertebrate major histocompatibility complex and immunoglobulin gene families. Our model emphasizes divergent selection acting on arrays of solvent-exposed residues in the LRR resulting in evolution of individual R genes within a haplotype. Intergenic unequal crossing-over and gene conversions are important but are not the primary mechanisms generating variation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1113-1130
Number of pages18
JournalGenome research
Issue number11
StatePublished - 1998


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