B cell receptors (BCRs) are membrane-bound immunoglobulins that recognize and bind foreign proteins (antigens). BCRs are formed through random somatic changes of germline DNA, creating a vast repertoire of unique sequences that enable individuals to recognise a diverse range of antigens. After encountering antigen for the first time, BCRs undergo a process of affinity maturation, whereby cycles of rapid somatic mutation and selection lead to improved antigen binding. This constitutes an accelerated evolutionary process that takes place over days or weeks. Next-generation sequencing of the gene regions that determine BCR binding has begun to reveal the diversity and dynamics of BCR repertoires in unprecedented detail. Although this new type of sequence data has the potential to revolutionise our understanding of infection dynamics, quantitative analysis is complicated by the unique biology and high diversity of BCR sequences. Models and concepts from molecular evolution and phylogenetics that have been applied successfully to rapidly evolving pathogen populations are increasingly being adopted to study BCR diversity and divergence within individuals. However, BCR dynamics may violate key assumptions of many standard evolutionary methods, as they do not descend from a single ancestor, and experience biased mutation. Here we review the application of evolutionary models to BCR repertoires and discuss the issues we believe need be addressed for this inter-disciplinary field to flourish.
© The Author(s) 2016. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution.