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PLoS Comput Biol. 2015 Nov 24;11(11):e1004627. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004627. eCollection 2015 Nov.

Red Queen Processes Drive Positive Selection on Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) Genes.

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Institute of Environmental Sciences, Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland.
Department of Arctic Biology, The University Centre in Svalbard, Svalbard, Norway.
Evolutionary Biology Group, Faculty of Biology, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland.


Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) genes code for proteins involved in the incitation of the adaptive immune response in vertebrates, which is achieved through binding oligopeptides (antigens) of pathogenic origin. Across vertebrate species, substitutions of amino acids at sites responsible for the specificity of antigen binding (ABS) are positively selected. This is attributed to pathogen-driven balancing selection, which is also thought to maintain the high polymorphism of MHC genes, and to cause the sharing of allelic lineages between species. However, the nature of this selection remains controversial. We used individual-based computer simulations to investigate the roles of two phenomena capable of maintaining MHC polymorphism: heterozygote advantage and host-pathogen arms race (Red Queen process). Our simulations revealed that levels of MHC polymorphism were high and driven mostly by the Red Queen process at a high pathogen mutation rate, but were low and driven mostly by heterozygote advantage when the pathogen mutation rate was low. We found that novel mutations at ABSs are strongly favored by the Red Queen process, but not by heterozygote advantage, regardless of the pathogen mutation rate. However, while the strong advantage of novel alleles increased the allele turnover rate, under a high pathogen mutation rate, allelic lineages persisted for a comparable length of time under Red Queen and under heterozygote advantage. Thus, when pathogens evolve quickly, the Red Queen is capable of explaining both positive selection and long coalescence times, but the tension between the novel allele advantage and persistence of alleles deserves further investigation.

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