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BACKGROUND: The critical role of Major Histocompatibility Complex (Mhc) genes in disease resistance and their highly polymorphic nature make them exceptional candidates for studies investigating genetic effects on survival, mate choice and conservation. Species that harbor many Mhc loci and high allelic diversity are particularly intriguing as they are potentially under strong selection and studies of such species provide valuable information as to the mechanisms maintaining Mhc diversity. However comprehensive genotyping of complex multilocus systems has been a major challenge to date with the result that little is known about the consequences of this complexity in terms of fitness effects and disease resistance. RESULTS: In this study, we genotyped the Mhc class I exon 3 of the great tit (Parus major) from two nest-box breeding populations near Oxford, UK that have been monitored for decades. Characterization of Mhc class I exon 3 was adopted and bidirectional sequencing was carried using the 454 sequencing platform. Full analysis of sequences through a stepwise variant validation procedure allowed reliable typing of more than 800 great tits based on 214,357 reads; from duplicates we estimated the repeatability of typing as 0.94. A total of 862 alleles were detected, and the presence of at least 16 functional loci was shown - the highest number characterized in a wild bird species. Finally, the functional alleles were grouped into 17 supertypes based on their antigen binding affinities. CONCLUSIONS: We found extreme complexity at the Mhc class I of the great tit both in terms of allelic diversity and gene number. The presence of many functional loci was shown, together with a pseudogene family and putatively non-functional alleles; there was clear evidence that functional alleles were under strong balancing selection. This study is the first step towards an in-depth analysis of this gene complex in this species, which will help understanding how parasite-mediated and sexual selection shape and maintain host genetic variation in nature. We believe that study systems like ours can make important contributions to the field of evolutionary biology and emphasize the necessity of integrating long-term field-based studies with detailed genetic analysis to unravel complex evolutionary processes.

Original publication




Journal article


BMC Evol Biol

Publication Date





Alleles, Animals, Computational Biology, DNA Primers, Exons, Genes, MHC Class II, Genetic Variation, Genotyping Techniques, Likelihood Functions, Models, Genetic, Passeriformes, Phylogeny, Selection, Genetic, Sequence Analysis, DNA