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Proc Biol Sci. 2009 Sep 7;276(1670):3133-40. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.0727. Epub 2009 Jun 10.

Signals of major histocompatibility complex overdominance in a wild salmonid population.

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  • 1Department of Biological and Environmental Science, University of Jyväskylä, PO Box 35 (YAC-315.2), 40014 Jyväskylä, Finland.


The major histocompatibility complex (MHC) contains the most variable genes in vertebrates, but despite extensive research, the mechanisms maintaining this polymorphism are still unresolved. One hypothesis is that MHC polymorphism is a result of balancing selection operating by overdominance, but convincing evidence for overdominant selection in natural populations has been lacking. We present strong evidence consistent with MHC-specific overdominance in a free-living population of Arctic charr (Salvelinus alpinus) in northernmost Europe. In this population, where just two MHC alleles were observed, MHC heterozygous fish had a lower parasite load, were in better condition (as estimated by a fatness indicator) and had higher survival under stress than either of the homozygotes. Conversely, there was no consistent association between these fitness measures and assumedly neutral microsatellite variability, indicating an MHC-specific effect. Our results provide convincing empirical evidence consistent with the notion that overdominance can be an important evolutionary mechanism contributing to MHC polymorphism in wild animal populations. They also support a recent simulation study indicating that the number of alleles expected to be maintained at an MHC loci can be low, even under strong heterozygote advantage.

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