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Proc Biol Sci. 1992 Aug 22;249(1325):163-71.

Limited MHC polymorphism in the southern elephant seal: implications for MHC evolution and marine mammal population biology.

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Department of Zoology, University of Queensland, Australia.


Genes of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) are highly polymorphic in most terrestrial mammal populations so far studied. Exceptions to this are typically populations that lack genome-wide diversity. Here I show that two populations of the southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonina) have low DNA restriction fragment length polymorphism at MHC loci when compared with terrestrial mammals. Limited studies on MHC polymorphism in two cetacean species suggest this is a feature of marine mammal populations in general. MHC polymorphism is thought to be maintained by balancing selection, and several types of disease-based and reproductive-based mechanisms have been proposed. For the three marine mammal species examined, the low MHC polymorphism cannot be explained by low genome-wide diversity, or by any reproductive-based selection pressure. It can, however, be explained by diminished exposure to pathogenic selection pressure compared with terrestrial mammals. Reduced exposure to pathogens would also mean that marine mammal populations may be susceptible to occasional pathogen-induced mass mortalities.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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