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Keywords:

  • B-complex;
  • immunocompetence;
  • Mhc;
  • Rfp-Y;
  • sexual selection

Abstract

The class I and class II genes of the major histocompatibility complex (Mhc) encode dimeric glycoproteins responsible for eliciting the adaptive immune response of vertebrates. Recent work with birds suggests that the number, size, and arrangement of these genes can differ markedly across species, although the extent of this variation, and its causes and consequences, are poorly understood. We have used a 157-base-pair (bp) portion of the second exon of a class II B gene to probe the Mhc in a free-living population of Savannah sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis). Segregation analysis of Mhc bands suggests that class II B genes can be found in two independently assorting clusters, as previously described for domestic chickens (Gallus gallus) and ring-necked pheasants (Phasianus colchicus) but unlike gene organization in mammals. The Mhc in Savannah sparrows appears large (with many class II B genes) and variable; we found 42 unique genotypes among 48 adults breeding on Kent Island, New Brunswick, Canada in 1995. Savannah sparrows are long-distance migrants, and these results support recent predictions that migratory birds should show higher levels of Mhc polymorphism and/or a greater number of genes than sedentary species. Savannah sparrows are also socially polygynous with high levels of extra-pair paternity, suggesting that a history of sexual selection might also influence the size and/or structure of the avian Mhc.