The defensins consist of two independent, convergent protein superfamilies Academic Article uri icon


  • The defensin and defensin-like proteins are an extensive group of small, cationic, disulfide-rich proteins found in animals, plants, and fungi and mostly perform roles in host defense. The term defensin was originally used for small mammalian proteins found in neutrophils and was subsequently applied to insect proteins and plant γ-thionins based on their perceived sequence and structural similarity. Defensins are often described as ancient innate immunity molecules and classified as a single superfamily and both sequence alignments and phylogenies have been constructed. Here, we present evidence that the defensins have not all evolved from a single ancestor. Instead, they consist of two analogous superfamilies, and extensive convergent evolution is the source of their similarities. Evidence of common origin necessarily gets weaker for distantly related genes, as is the case for defensins, which are both divergent and small. We show that similarities that have been used as evidence for common origin are all expected by chance in short, constrained, disulfide-rich proteins. Differences in tertiary structure, secondary structure order, and disulfide bond connectivity indicate convergence as the likely source of the similarity. We refer to the two evolutionarily independent groups as the cis-defensins and trans-defensins based on the orientation of the most conserved pair of disulfides.

publication date

  • 2016