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Mol Biol Evol. 2011 Jun;28(6):1943-56. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msr015. Epub 2011 Jan 27.

Spectrum of MHC class II variability in Darwin's finches and their close relatives.

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  • 1Department of Anatomy, School of Dental Medicine, Tsurumi University, Yokohama, Japan. sato-ake@tsurumi-u.ac.jp


The study describes >400 major histocompatibility complex (MHC) class II B exon 2 and 114 intron 2 sequences of 36 passerine bird species, 13 of which belong to the group of Darwin's finches (DFs) and the remaining 23 to close or more distant relatives of DFs in Central and South America. The data set is analyzed by a combination of judiciously selected statistical methods. The analysis reveals that reliable information concerning MHC organization, including the assignment of sequences to loci, and evolution, as well as the process of species divergence, can be obtained in the absence of genomic sequence data, if the analysis is taken several steps beyond the standard phylogenetic tree construction approach. The main findings of the present study are these: The MHC class II B region of the passerine birds is as elaborate in its organization, divergence, and genetic diversity as the MHC of the eutherian mammals, specifically the primates. Hence, the reported simplicity of the fowl MHC is an oddity. With the help of appropriate markers, the divergence of the MHC genes can be traced deep in the phylogeny of the bird taxa. Transspecies polymorphism is rampant at many of the bird MHC loci. In this respect, the DFs behave as if they were a single, genetically undifferentiated population. There is thus far no indication of alleles that could be considered species, genus, or even DF group specific. The implication of these findings is that DFs are in the midst of adaptive radiations, in which morphological differentiation into species is running ahead of genetic differentiation in genetic systems such as the MHC or the mitochondrial DNA. The radiations are so young that there has not been enough time to sort out polymorphisms at most of the loci among the morphologically differentiating species. These findings parallel those on Lake Victoria haplochromine fishes. Several of the DF MHC allelic lineages can be traced back to the MHC genes of the species Tiaris obscura, which we identified previously as the closest extant relative of DFs in continental America.

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