Isolation and characterization of a MHC class II DRB locus in the European water vole (Arvicola terrestris)

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In so-called model species, such as human and mouse, genes of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) are characterized by extremely high levels of polymorphism, and it is considered that such diversity is maintained by balancing selection. `There is now a recognized need to expand studies into nonmodel species to examine whether high MHC diversity is mirrored in natural populations, and to determine the ecological, ethological, and evolutionary processes that underpin balancing selection. To address such issues, a necessary prerequisite is the ability to characterize diversity at a single, expressed, polymorphic MHC locus on which selection may be acting. Here, we provide the first description of allelic diversity at exon 2 of an MHC class II DRB locus in the European water vole (Arvicola terrestris), characterize variation across four natural populations, and test whether the patterns of variation are consistent with the effects of balancing selection. Using single-strand conformation polymorphism analysis and subsequent DNA sequencing of gel excisions, five DRB alleles were resolved, each with a unique amino acid sequence, among 100 individuals from four geographically distinct populations. Reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction confirmed that the alleles were products from an expressed locus. Intra-allelic amino acid differences were high (10.5-33.3%), and the nonsynonymous substitution rate exceeded the synonymous substitution rate for the functional peptide-binding region (d (N):d (S)=3.91 and P < 0.005). Phylogenetic comparison of resolved alleles with closely related homologues indicated that each allele represented a unique lineage preserved across speciation events. These results indicate that balancing selection has maintained diversity of DRB allelic lineages and amino acid function over evolutionary time scales, but may be less effective at preserving alleles in contemporary populations where stochastic microevolutionary processes may dominate.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)390-395
Number of pages6
Issue number5-6
Publication statusPublished - 2006


  • MHC class II
  • polymorphism
  • evolution
  • balancing selection
  • Arvicola
  • major histocompatibility complex
  • region configurations
  • mating preferences
  • sequence alignment
  • Southern Kalahari
  • Rhesus Macaques
  • parasite load
  • genes


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