Plant disease resistance genes have been shown to be subject to positive selection, particularly in the leucine rich repeat (LRR) region that may determine resistance specificity. We performed a genome-wide analysis of positive selection in members of the nucleotide binding site (NBS)-LRR gene family of Arabidopsis thaliana. Analyses were possible for 103 of 163 NBS-LRR nucleotide sequences in the genome, and the analyses uncovered substantial evidence of positive selection. Sites under positive selection were detected and identified for 10 sequence groups representing 53 NBS-LRR sequences. Functionally characterized Arabidopsis resistance genes were in these 10 groups, but several groups with extensive evidence of positive selection contained no previously characterized resistance genes. Amino acid residues under positive selection were identified, and these residues were mapped onto protein secondary structure. Positively selected positions were disproportionately located in the LRR domain (P < 0.001), particularly a nine-amino acid β-strand submotif that is likely to be solvent exposed. However, a substantial proportion (30%) of positively selected sites were located outside LRRs, suggesting that regions other than the LRR may function in determining resistance specificity. Because of the unusual sequence variability in the LRRs of this class of proteins, secondary-structure analysis identifies LRRs that are not identified by similarity analyses alone. LRRs also contain substantial indel variation, suggesting elasticity in LRR length could also influence resistance specificity.
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