Disentangling the roles of natural selection and genetic drift in shaping variation at MHC immunity genes


Jolene T. Sutton, Fax: 64 3 479 7584; E-mail: jolene.sutton@gmail.com


The major histocompatibility complex (MHC) forms an integral component of the vertebrate immune response and, due to strong selection pressures, is one of the most polymorphic regions of the entire genome. Despite over 15 years of research, empirical studies offer highly contradictory explanations of the relative roles of different evolutionary forces, selection and genetic drift, acting on MHC genes during population bottlenecks. Here, we take a meta-analytical approach to quantify the results of studies into the effects of bottlenecks on MHC polymorphism. We show that the consequences of selection acting on MHC loci prior to a bottleneck event, combined with drift during the bottleneck, will result in overall loss of MHC polymorphism that is ∼15% greater than loss of neutral genetic diversity. These results are counter to general expectations that selection should maintain MHC polymorphism, but do agree with the results of recent simulation models and at least two empirical studies. Notably, our results suggest that negative frequency-dependent selection could be more important than overdominance for maintaining high MHC polymorphism in pre-bottlenecked populations.