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We present a locus-specific protocol suitable for the investigation, from extracted DNA, into natural inter- and intra-specific genetic variation in a group of nine innate immune genes, all belonging to the β-defensin gene family. The products of these genes encode peptides with antimicrobial properties and form part of the innate immune system. The protocol amplifies the exon coding for the peptide that interacts with invading pathogens and is applicable across a wide range of passerine bird species, although with varying success depending on species. In several species tested, we found individuals to be heterozygous at several of the genes, highlighting the existence of coding genetic variation in this part of the immune system. Furthermore, for several of the genes, alleles have been conserved at the amino acid level across taxonomically distant bird species. In one case, we observed the existence of trans-species polymorphisms, often taken as evidence of balancing selection. The method will make it possible to investigate a part of the immune system for which there exists very little information of the genetic variation in wild vertebrate populations, thus making it possible to start investigating the selective forces under which the genes are evolving and the extent to which the found genetic variation is associated with pathogen susceptibility in wild populations.

Original publication




Journal article


Mol Ecol Resour

Publication Date





686 - 692


Alleles, Animals, Heterozygote, Molecular Biology, Passeriformes, Polymorphism, Genetic, beta-Defensins