The cytotoxic activity of mouse natural killer cells is regulated in part through cell surface molecules belonging to the Ly49 multigene family. In mice, the genomic sequence of the Ly49 gene cluster has been examined in detail and this analysis provided a model of the expansion of this multigene family. In the present study, we have analyzed a 1.8-Mb region of the draft rat genome revealing surprising differences in size and gene content between the mouse and the rat Ly49 clusters. The rat cluster contains at least 36 Ly49 genes, including pseudogenes, while dot-plot analysis of the cluster reveals an equidistant spacing of genes, suggesting that duplication of genes in the cluster occurred through a mechanism similar to that in the mouse. Phylogenetic analysis of the predicted rat genes reveals a number of distinct gene clusters and indicates that the majority of gene duplication events occurred after the divergence of mice and rats. Thus, the rodent Ly49 locus is subject to extremely rapid gene amplification and diversification. Copyright 2004 Elsevier Inc.