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Adv Genet. 2007;59:129-45.

Genetic basis for MHC-dependent mate choice.

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Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104, USA.


Genes in the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), best known for their role in immune recognition and transplantation success, are also involved in modulating mate choice in mice. Early studies with inbred, congenic mouse lines showed that mate choice tended to favor nonself MHC types. A similar phenomenon was demonstrated with semi-wild mice as well. Subsequent studies showed that, rather than nonself choices, it was more accurate to say that mice chose nonparental MHC types for mates since preferences for nonself could be reversed if mice were fostered from birth on parents with nonself MHC types. Other studies have demonstrated that parent-offspring recognition is also regulated by MHC-determined signals suggesting that this system is one of general importance for mouse behavior. Many studies have now demonstrated that volatile mouse body odors are regulated by MHC genes and it is presumably these odor differences that underlie mate choice and familial recognition. Recent studies have shown that many odorants are controlled by the MHC but the mechanism by which MHC genes exert their influence has not been identified. Surprisingly, not only are volatile body odors influenced by MHC genes but so too are nonvolatile signals. Peptides bound to the MHC protein may also function in individual recognition. The extent to which this system is involved in mate choice of other species is unclear although there are some suggestive studies. Indeed, there is tentative evidence that MHC differences, presumably acting via odor changes, may influence human partner selection. Further studies should clarify both the mechanism underlying MHC influence on body odors as well as the generality of their importance in mate selection.

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