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Keywords:

  • gut parasites;
  • habitat fragmentation;
  • major histocompatibility complex;
  • positive selection;
  • small populations;
  • Spermophilus suslicus

Abstract

The fragmentation of populations typically enhances depletion of genetic variation, but highly polymorphic major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes are thought to be under balancing selection and therefore retain polymorphism despite population bottlenecks. In this study, we investigate MHC DRB (class II) exon 2 variation in 14 spotted suslik populations from two regions differing in their degree of habitat fragmentation and gene flow. We found 16 alleles that segregated in a sample of 248 individuals. The alleles were highly divergent and revealed the hallmark signs of positive selection acting on them in the past, showing a significant excess of nonsynonymous substitutions. This excess was concentrated in putative antigen-binding sites, which suggests that past selection was driven by pathogens. MHC diversity was significantly lower in fragmented western populations than in the eastern populations, characterized by significant gene flow. In contrast to neutral variation, amova did not reveal genetic differentiation between the two regions. This may indicate similar selective pressures shaping MHC variation in both regions until the recent past. However, MHC allelic richness within a population was correlated with that for microsatellites. FST outlier analyses have shown that population differentiation at DRB was neither higher nor lower than expected under neutrality. The results suggest that selection on MHC is not strong enough to counteract drift that results from recent fragmentation of spotted suslik populations.