Meta-populational demes constitute a reservoir for large MHC allele diversity in wild house mice (Mus musculus)


Linnenbrink M, Teschke M, Montero I, Vallier M, Tautz D

Year of publication:






Journal (long):

Frontiers of Zoology

Journal (short):

Front. Zool.

Impact factor:



The MHC class I and II loci mediate the adaptive immune response and belong to the most polymorphic loci in vertebrate genomes. In fact, the number of different alleles in a given species is often so large that it remains a challenge to provide an evolutionary model that can fully account for this.

We provide here a general survey of MHC allele numbers in house mouse populations and two sub-species (M. m. domesticus and M. m. musculus) for H2 class I D and K, as well as class II A and E loci. Between 50 and 90% of the detected different sequences constitute new alleles, confirming that the discovery of new alleles is indeed far from complete. House mice live in separate demes with small effective population sizes, factors that were proposed to reduce, rather than enhance the possibility for the maintenance of many different alleles. To specifically investigate the occurrence of alleles within demes, we focused on the class II H2-Aa and H2-Eb exon 2 alleles in nine demes of M. m. domesticus from two different geographic regions. We find on the one hand a group of alleles that occur in different sampling regions and three quarters of these are also found in both sub-species. On the other hand, the larger group of different alleles (56%) occurs only in one of the regions and most of these (89%) only in single demes. We show that most of these region-specific alleles have apparently arisen through recombination and/or partial gene conversion from already existing alleles.

Demes can act as sources of alleles that outnumber the set of alleles that are shared across the species range. These findings support the reservoir model proposed for human MHC diversity, which states that large pools of rare MHC allele variants are continuously generated by neutral mutational mechanisms. Given that these can become important in the defense against newly emerging pathogens, the reservoir model complements the selection based models for MHC diversity and explains why the exceptional diversity exists.

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