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Extensive polymorphism and geographical variation at a positively selected MHC class II B gene of the lesser kestrel (Falco naumanni)


Miguel Alcaide, Fax: +34 954 62 11 25; E-mail:


Understanding the selective forces that shape genetic variation in natural populations remains a high priority in evolutionary biology. Genes at the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) have become excellent models for the investigation of adaptive variation and natural selection because of their crucial role in fighting off pathogens. Here we present one of the first data sets examining patterns of MHC variation in wild populations of a bird of prey, the lesser kestrel, Falco naumanni. We report extensive polymorphism at the second exon of a putatively functional MHC class II gene, Fana-DAB*1. Overall, 103 alleles were isolated from 121 individuals sampled from Spain to Kazakhstan. Bayesian inference of diversifying selection suggests that several amino acid sites may have experienced strong positive selection (ω = 4.02 per codon). The analysis also suggests a prominent role of recombination in generating and maintaining MHC diversity (ρ = 4Nc = 0.389 per codon, θ = 0.017 per codon). Both the Fana-DAB*1 locus and a set of eight polymorphic microsatellite markers revealed an isolation-by-distance pattern across the Western Palaearctic (r = 0.67; P = 0.01 and r = 0.50; P = 0.04, respectively). Nonetheless, geographical variation at the MHC contrasts with relatively uniform distributions in the frequencies of microsatellite alleles. In addition, we found lower fixation rates in the MHC than those predicted by genetic drift after controlling for neutral mitochondrial sequences. Our results therefore underscore the role of balancing selection as well as spatial variations in parasite-mediated selection regimes in shaping MHC diversity when gene flow is limited.

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