Background: Research on the genetic architecture and diversity of the MHC has focused mainly on eutherian mammals, birds and fish. So far, studies on model marsupials used in laboratory investigations indicated very little or even no variation in MHC class II genes. However, natural levels of diversity and selection are unknown in marsupials as studies on wild populations are virtually absent. We used two endemic South American mouse opossums, Gracilinanus microtarsus and Marmosops incanus, to investigate characteristic features of MHC selection. This study is the first investigation of MHC selection in free-ranging Neotropical marsupials. In addition, the evolutionary history of MHC lineages within the group of marsupials was examined.
Results: G. microtarsus showed extensive levels of MHC diversity within and among individuals as 47 MHC-DAB alleles and high levels of sequence divergence were detected at a minimum of four loci. Positively selected codon sites were identified, of which most were congruent with human antigen binding sites. The diversity in M. incanus was rather low with only eight observed alleles at presumably two loci. However, these alleles also revealed high sequence divergence. Again, positive selection was identified on specific codon sites, all congruent with human ABS and with positively selected sites observed in G. microtarsus. In a phylogenetic comparison alleles of M. incanus interspersed widely within alleles of G. microtarsus with four alleles being present in both species.
Conclusion: Our investigations revealed extensive MHC class II polymorphism in a natural marsupial population, contrary to previous assumptions. Furthermore, our study confirms for the first time in marsupials the presence of three characteristic features common at MHC loci of eutherian mammals, birds and fish: large allelic sequence divergence, positive selection on specific sites and trans-specific polymorphism.
2008. Vol. 9, 39- p.