Our understanding of the evolutionary mechanisms generating variation within the highly polymorphic major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes remains incomplete. Assessing MHC variation across multiple populations, of recent and ancient divergence, may facilitate understanding of geographical and temporal aspects of variation. Here, we applied 454 sequencing to perform a large-scale, comprehensive analysis of MHC class II in the closely related, hybridizing newts, Lissotriton vulgaris (Lv) and Lissotriton montandoni (Lm). Our study revealed an extensive (299 alleles) geographically structured polymorphism. Populations at the southern margin of the Lv distribution, inhabited by old and distinct lineages (southern Lv), exhibited moderate MHC variation and strong population structure, indicating little gene flow or extensive local adaptation. Lissotriton vulgaris in central Europe and the northern Balkans (northern Lv) and almost all Lm populations had a high MHC variation. A much higher proportion of MHC alleles was shared between Lm and northern Lv than between Lm and southern Lv. Strikingly, the average pairwise F(ST) between northern Lv and Lm was significantly lower than between northern and southern Lv for MHC, but not for microsatellites. Thus, high MHC variation in Lm and northern Lv may result from gene flow between species. We hypothesize that the interspecific exchange of MHC genes may be facilitated by frequency-dependent selection. A marginally significant correlation between the MHC and microsatellite allelic richness indicates that demographic factors may have contributed to the present-day pattern of MHC variation, but unequivocal signatures of adaptive evolution in MHC class II sequences emphasize the role of selection on a longer timescale.
© 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.