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Keywords:

  • Bison bonasus;
  • bottleneck;
  • conservation;
  • MHC class II;
  • posthitis

Abstract

MHC genes play a crucial role in pathogen recognition and are the most polymorphic genes in vertebrates. Loss of variation in these genes in bottlenecked species is thought to put their survival at risk. We examined variation at the MHC II DRB3 locus in the European bison, Bison bonasus, a species that has undergone an extreme bottleneck: the current population originated from only 12 founders. We also tested for the association of DRB3 genes with the incidence of posthitis, a disease affecting the reproductive organs of bulls and posing a new threat to the survival of the species. We found very limited MHC diversity, with only four alleles segregating in a sample of 172 individuals from a free-ranging Białowieża population. The alleles were highly divergent and revealed the hallmark of positive selection acting on them in the past, that is, a significant excess of nonsynonymous substitutions. This excess was concentrated in putative antigen-binding sites, suggesting that selection was driven by pathogens. However, we did not observe departures from Hardy–Weinberg equilibrium, an indicator of strong ongoing selection. Neither have we found a significant association between DRB3 alleles or genotypes and susceptibility to posthitis. Alleles conferring resistance to males may have been lost during the extreme bottleneck the species had undergone.