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Mol Biol Evol. 2002 Nov;19(11):1870-80.

Strong positive selection and habitat-specific amino acid substitution patterns in MHC from an estuarine fish under intense pollution stress.

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  • 1Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, 02138, USA.


Population-level studies using the major histocompatibility complex (Mhc) have linked specific alleles with specific diseases, but data requirements are high and the power to detect disease association is low. A novel use of Mhc population surveys involves mapping allelic substitutions onto the inferred structural molecular model to show functional differentiation related to local selective pressures. In the estuarine fish Fundulus heteroclitus, populations experiencing strong differences in antigenic challenges show significant differences in amino acid substitution patterns that are reflected as variation in the structural location of changes between populations. Fish from a population genetically adapted to severe chemical pollution also show novel patterns of DNA substitution at a highly variable Mhc class II B locus including strong signals of positive selection at inferred antigen-binding sites and population-specific signatures of amino acid substitution. Heavily parasitized fish from an extreme PCB-contaminated (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund) site show enhanced population-specific substitutions in the a-helix portion of the inferred antigen-binding region. In contrast, fish from an unpolluted site show a significantly different pattern focused on the first strand of the B-pleated sheet. Whether Mhc population profile differences represent the direct effects of chemical toxicants or indirect parasite-mediated selection, the result is a composite habitat-specific signature of strong selection and evolution affecting the genetic repertoire of the major histocompatibility complex.

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