Evolutionary genetics of MHC class II beta genes in the brown hare, Lepus europaeus.

PMID 21688061


The genes of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) are attractive candidates for investigating the link between adaptive variation and individual fitness. High levels of diversity at the MHC are thought to be the result of parasite-mediated selection and there is growing evidence to support this theory. Most studies, however, target just a single gene within the MHC and infer any evidence of selection to be representative of the entire gene region. Here we present data from three MHC class II beta genes (DPB, DQB, and DRB) for brown hares in two geographic regions and compare them against previous results from a class II alpha-chain gene (DQA). We report moderate levels of diversity and high levels of population differentiation in the DQB and DRB genes (Na  =  11, D (est) =  0.071 and Na  = 15, D (est) =  0.409, respectively), but not for the DPB gene (Na  =  4, D (est) =  0.00). We also detected evidence of positive selection within the peptide binding region of the DQB and DRB genes (95% CI, ω  >  1.0) but found no signature of selection for DPB. Mutation and recombination were both found to be important processes shaping the evolution of the class II genes. Our findings suggest that while diversifying selection is a significant contributor to the generally high levels of MHC diversity, it does not act in a uniform manner across the entire MHC class II region. The beta-chain genes that we have characterized provide a valuable set of MHC class II markers for future studies of the evolution of adaptive variation in Leporids.