DNA sequences of the fifth exon, which encodes the transmembrane domain, were determined for the BALB/c mouse class I MHC genes and used to study the relationships between them. Based on nucleotide sequence similarity, the exon 5 sequences can be divided into seven groups. Although most members within each group are at least 80% similar to each other, comparison between groups reveals that the groups share little similarity. However, in spite of the extensive variation of the fifth exon sequences, analysis of their predicted amino acid translations reveals that only four class I gene fifth exons have frameshifts or stop codons that terminate their translation and prevent them from encoding a domain that is both hydrophobic and long enough to span a lipid bilayer. Exactly 27 of the remaining fifth exons could encode a domain that is similar to those of the transplantation antigens in that it consists of a proline-rich connecting peptide, a transmembrane segment, and a cytoplasmic portion with membrane-anchoring basic residues. The conservation of this motif in the majority of the fifth exon translations in spite of extensive variation suggests that selective pressure exists for these exons to maintain their ability to encode a functional transmembrane domain, raising the possibility that many of the nonclassical class I genes encode functionally important products.

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