Major histocompatibility complex heterozygosity enhances reproductive success


Dustin J. Penn, Fax: +43 1 515 81 2800; E-mail:


We investigated how heterozygosity at the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) affects fitness in wild-derived (F2) house mice (Mus musculus musculus). To compare and control for potential confounding effects from close inbreeding and genome-wide heterozygosity, we used mice that were systematically outbred. We assessed how heterozygosity at MHC and background loci (using 15 microsatellite markers on 11 different chromosomes) affects individual survival and reproductive success (RS) in large, semi-natural population enclosures. We found that overall heterozygosity significantly increased RS, and this correlation was entirely explained by heterozygosity at two MHC loci. Moreover, we found that the effects of MHC heterozygosity depend on the level of background heterozygosity, and the benefits of maximal MHC heterozygosity show a curvilinear effect with increasing background heterozygosity. The enhanced RS from MHC heterozygosity was not because of increased survival, and although MHC heterozygosity was correlated with body mass, body mass did not correlate with RS when heterozygosity is controlled. Breeders were more MHC heterozygous than nonbreeders for both sexes, indicating that MHC heterozygosity enhanced fecundity, mating success or both. Our results show that (i) MHC heterozygosity enhances fitness among wild, outbred as well as congenic laboratory mice; (ii) heterozygosity–fitness correlations can potentially be explained by a few loci, such as MHC; (iii) MHC heterozygosity can increase fitness, even without affecting survival, by increasing mating and RS; and (iv) MHC effects depend on background genes, and maximal MHC heterozygosity is most beneficial at intermediate or optimal levels of background heterozygosity.