The major histocompatability complex (MHC) is a multigene family of receptors that bind and present antigenic peptides to T-cells. Genes of the MHC are characterized by an outstanding genetic polymorphism, which is considered to be maintained by positive selection. Sites involved in peptide binding form binding pockets (P) that are collectively termed the peptide-binding region (PBR). In this study, we examined the level of MHC genetic diversity within and among natural populations of brown hare (Lepus europaeus) from Europe and Anatolia choosing for analysis of the second exon of the DQA locus, one of the most polymorphic class II loci. We aimed at an integrated population genetic analysis of L. europeaus by (i) correlating MHC polymorphism to genetic variability and phylogenetic status estimated previously from maternally (mtDNA) and biparentally (allozymes, microsatellites) inherited loci; and (ii) comparing full-length exon amino acid polymorphism with functional polymorphism in the PBR and the binding pockets P1, P6 and P9. A substantial level of DQA exon 2 polymorphism was detected with two completely different set of alleles between the Anatolian and European populations. However, the phylogeny of full-length exon 2 Leeu-DQA alleles did not show a strong phylogeographic signal. The presence of balancing selection was supported by a statistically significant excess of nonsynonymous substitutions over synonymous in the PBR and a trans-species pattern of evolution detected after phylogenetic reconstruction. The differentiating patterns detected between genetic and functional polymorphism, i.e. the number and the distribution of pocket variants within and among populations, indicated a hierarchical action of selection pressures.
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