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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2004 Mar 9;101(10):3490-4. Epub 2004 Feb 27.

High MHC diversity maintained by balancing selection in an otherwise genetically monomorphic mammal.

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  • 1Department of Organismic Biology, Ecology, and Evolution, University of California, Los Angeles, CA 90095, USA.


The San Nicolas Island fox (Urocyon littoralis dickeyi) is genetically the most monomorphic sexually reproducing animal population yet reported and has no variation in hypervariable genetic markers. Such low levels of variation imply lower resistance to pathogens, reduced fitness, and problems in distinguishing kin from non-kin. In vertebrates, the MHC contains genes that influence disease resistance and kin recognition and may be under intense balancing selection in some populations. Hence, genetic variation at the MHC might persist despite the extreme monomorphism shown by neutral markers. We examine variation of five loci within the MHC of San Nicolas Island foxes and find remarkably high levels of variation. Further, we show by simulation that genetic monomorphism at neutral loci and high MHC variation could arise only through an extreme population bottleneck of <10 individuals, approximately 10-20 generations ago, accompanied by unprecedented selection coefficients of >0.5 on MHC loci. These results support the importance of balancing selection as a mechanism to maintain variation in natural populations and expose the difficulty of using neutral markers as surrogates for variation in fitness-related loci.

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