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Genes of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) form a vital part of the vertebrate immune system and play a major role in pathogen resistance. The extremely high levels of polymorphism observed at the MHC are hypothesised to be driven by pathogen-mediated selection. Although the exact nature of selection remains unclear, three main hypotheses have been put forward; heterozygote advantage, negative frequency-dependence and fluctuating selection. Here, we report the effects of MHC genotype on survival in a cohort of semi-natural red junglefowl (Gallus gallus) that suffered severe mortality as a result of an outbreak of the disease coccidiosis. The cohort was followed from hatching until 250 days of age, approximately the age of sexual maturity in this species, during which time over 80% of the birds died. We show that on average birds with MHC heterozygote genotypes survived infection longer than homozygotes and that this effect was independent of genome-wide heterozygosity, estimated across microsatellite loci. This MHC effect appeared to be caused by a single susceptible haplotype (CD_c) the effect of which was masked in all heterozygote genotypes by other dominant haplotypes. The CD_c homozygous genotype had lower survival than all other genotypes, but CD_c heterozygous genotypes had survival probabilities equal to the most resistant homozygote genotype. Importantly, no heterozygotes conferred greater resistance than the most resistant homozygote genotype, indicating that the observed survival advantage of MHC heterozygotes was the product of dominant, rather than overdominant processes. This pattern and effect of MHC diversity in our population could reflect the processes ongoing in similarly small, fragmented natural populations.

Original publication




Journal article


Mol Ecol

Publication Date





3064 - 3075


Animals, Bird Diseases, Chickens, Coccidiosis, Female, Genetic Variation, Heterozygote, Homozygote, Immunity, Innate, Major Histocompatibility Complex, Male, Microsatellite Repeats, Models, Statistical, Regression Analysis