Immunoglobulin heavy chain (IgH) genes in representative chondrichthyan fishes (sharks and skates) consist of independently functioning clusters, containing separate variable (VH), diversity (DH), and joining (JH) region elements and constant (CH) region exons. IgH loci have been characterized in Hydrolagus colliei (spotted ratfish), a modern representative of a major independent chondrichthyan lineage. Three distinct families of IgH gene clusters were identified. The most numerous genes consist of unjoined VH-D1-D2-JH segments that correspond to the most abundant Hydrolagus spleen (cDNA) transcripts which apparently arise from a diversified gene family. In the second cluster type, VH, DH, and JH segments are germline-joined, whereas the CH exons exhibit typical organization. This gene type is found in only a few copies per haploid genome and both transmembrane and secretory transcripts have been identified. A third cluster type has been identified that consists of unjoined VH elements but lacks a typical CH1 exon, which is substituted with a second CH2-like exon. Transcripts from this third cluster type also appear to derive from a diversified gene family. Genomic D regions of the two unjoined clone types exhibit structural differences that are consistent with incorporation of recombination machinery-mediated events. Genomic library screening indicates that 90% of VH+ clones are truncated, nearly identical pseudogenes (lacking JH and CH). These studies demonstrate an early phylogenetic origin for the cluster type of gene organization and document extensive organizational diversification within an apparent single class of IgH genes.
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