Animals are continuously threatened by pathogens entering the body through natural openings. Here we show that in chicken (Gallus gallus), secretory IgA (sIgA) protects the epithelia lining these natural cavities. A gene encoding a chicken polymeric Ig receptor (GG-pIgR), a key component of sIgA, was identified, and shown to be expressed in the liver, intestine and bursa of Fabricius. All motifs involved in pIgR function are present, with a highly conserved Ig-binding motif in the first Ig-like domain. Physical association of GG-pIgR with pIgA in bile and intestine demonstrates that this protein is a functional receptor. Thus, as shown for mammals, this receptor interacts with J-chain-containing polymeric IgA (pIgA) at the basolateral epithelial cell surface resulting in transcytosis and subsequent cleavage of the pIgR, releasing sIgA in the mucosal lumen. Interestingly, the extracellular portion of GG-pIgR protein comprises only four Ig-like domains, in contrast with the five domain structure found in mammalian pIgR genes. The second Ig-like domain of mammalian pIgR does not have an orthologous domain in the chicken gene. The presence of pIgR in chicken suggests that this gene has evolved before the divergence of birds and reptiles, indicating that secretory Igs may have a prominent role in first line defence in various non-mammalian species.

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