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Immunol Rev. 1999 Feb;167:45-58.

Evolution of the mammalian MHC: natural selection, recombination, and convergent evolution.

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Department of Neurology, Washington University School of Medicine, St Louis, Missouri, USA.


The genes that encode molecules involved in antigen presentation within the class I and class II regions of the mammalian major histocompatibility complex (MHC) include several that are highly polymorphic. There is evidence that this polymorphism is maintained by positive selection, most likely overdominant selection, relating to their role in presenting foreign peptides to T cells. This selection can maintain allelic lineages for much longer periods of time than neutral polymorphisms are expected to last, but sharing of polymorphic amino acid motifs among species of different mammalian orders is due to independent (or convergent) evolution rather than common ancestry. It has been suggested that interallelic recombination (gene conversion) plays a role in enhancing polymorphism, but there is evidence of striking differences among loci with respect to the rate at which such recombination has contributed to current polymorphism. Recent attempts to interpret linkage relationships in the MHC region as evidence of ancient genomic duplications are not supported by phylogenetic analysis. Rather, natural selection may have played a role in the linkage of other genes to those of the MHC.

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