Genes of the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) play a critical role in immune recognition and are the most genetically diverse loci known. One hypothesis to explain this diversity postulates that pathogens adapt to common MHC haplotypes and thus favour selection of new or rare alleles. To determine whether the pathogenic yeast Cryptococcus neoformans adapts to MHC-dependent immune responses, it was serially passaged in two independent replicate lines of five B10 MHC-congenic strains and Balb/c mice. All passaged lines increased in virulence as measured by reduced host survival. MHC influenced the rate (trajectory) of virulence increase during passages as measured by significant differences in mortality rate (p < 0.001). However, when the post-passage strains were tested, no MHC differences in mortality rate remained and only minor differences in titres were observed. Also contrary to expectations, increased virulence in three lines passaged in B10 mice had a larger effect in Balb/c mice, and the evolution of virulence in lines passaged in alternating hosts was not retarded. To our knowledge, these data represent the first experimental test of MHC-specific adaptation in a non-viral pathogen. The failure to observe MHC effects despite dramatically increased virulence and host-genotype-specific adaptation to non-MHC genes suggests that escape of MHC-dependent immune recognition may be difficult for pathogens with unlimited epitopes or that other virulence factors can swamp MHC effects.
Copyright 2004 The Royal Society