Genome sizes vary by several orders of magnitude, driven by mechanisms such as illegitimate recombination and transposable element proliferation. Prior analysis of the CesA region in two cotton genomes that diverged 5-10 million years ago (Ma), and acquired a twofold difference in genome size, revealed extensive local conservation of genic and intergenic regions, with no evidence of the global genome size difference. The present study extends the comparison to include BAC sequences surrounding the gene encoding alcohol dehydrogenase A (AdhA) from four cotton genomes: the two co-resident genomes (AT and DT) of the allotetraploid, Gossypium hirsutum, as well as the model diploid progenitors, Gossypium arboreum (A) and Gossypium raimondii (D). In contrast to earlier work, evolution in the AdhA region reflects, in a microcosm, the overall difference in genome size, with a nearly twofold difference in aligned sequence length. Most size differences may be attributed to differential accumulation of retroelements during divergence of the genome diploids from their common ancestor, but in addition there has been a biased accumulation of small deletions, such that those in the smaller D genome are on average twice as large as those in the larger A genome. The data also provide evidence for the global phenomenon of 'genomic downsizing' in polyploids shortly after formation. This in part reflects a higher frequency of small deletions post-polyploidization, and increased illegitimate recombination. In conjunction with previous work, the data here confirm the conclusion that genome size evolution reflects many forces that collectively operate heterogeneously among genomic regions. © 2007 The Authors.