The major histocompatibility complex (MHC) is a highly variable family of genes involved in parasite recognition and the initiation of adaptive immune system responses. Variation in MHC loci is maintained primarily through parasite-mediated selection or disassortative mate choice. To characterize MHC diversity of rufous-collared sparrows (Zonotrichia capensis), an abundant South American passerine, we examined allelic and nucleotide variation in MHC class I exon 3 using pyrosequencing. Exon 3 comprises a substantial portion of the peptide-binding region (PBR) of class I MHC and thus plays an important role in intracellular pathogen defense. We identified 98 putatively functional alleles that produce 56 unique protein sequences across at least 6 paralogous loci. Allelic diversity per individual and exon-wide nucleotide diversity were relatively low; however, we found specific amino acid positions with high nucleotide diversity and signatures of positive selection (elevated dN/dS) that may correspond to the PBR. Based on the variation in physicochemical properties of amino acids at these “positively selected sites,” we identified ten functional MHC supertypes. Spatial variation in nucleotide diversity and the number of MHC alleles, proteins, and supertypes per individual suggests that environmental heterogeneity may affect patterns of MHC diversity. Furthermore, populations with high MHC diversity have higher prevalence of avian malaria, consistent with parasite-mediated selection on MHC. Together, these results provide a framework for subsequent investigations of selective agents acting on MHC in Z. capensis.
- Elevational gradient
- Genetic variation
- Major histocompatibility complex
- Natural selection
- Zonotrichia capensis