Evaluating the adaptive potential of the European eel: is the immunogenetic status recovering?

PeerJ. 2016 Apr 11;4:e1868. doi: 10.7717/peerj.1868. eCollection 2016.


The recent increased integration of evolutionary theory into conservation programs has greatly improved our ability to protect endangered species. A common application of such theory links population dynamics and indices of genetic diversity, usually estimated from neutrally evolving markers. However, some studies have suggested that highly polymorphic adaptive genes, such as the immune genes of the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC), might be more sensitive to fluctuations in population dynamics. As such, the combination of neutrally- and adaptively-evolving genes may be informative in populations where reductions in abundance have been documented. The European eel (Anguilla anguilla) underwent a drastic and well-reported decline in abundance in the late 20th century and still displays low recruitment. Here we compared genetic diversity indices estimated from neutral (mitochondrial DNA and microsatellites) and adaptive markers (MHC) between two distinct generations of European eels. Our results revealed a clear discrepancy between signatures obtained for each class of markers. Although mtDNA and microsatellites showed no changes in diversity between the older and the younger generations, MHC diversity revealed a contemporary drop followed by a recent increase. Our results suggest ongoing gain of MHC genetic diversity resulting from the interplay between drift and selection and ultimately increasing the adaptive potential of the species.

Keywords: Adaptive potential; European eel; Major Histocompatibility Complex; Population dynamics; Temporal analyses.

Grant support

MB-S is funded by the International Max Planck Research School for Evolutionary Biology. CE is partly supported by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft grants (EI 841/4-1 and EI 841/6-1). This work was also supported by a research grant from the Fisheries Society of the British Isles. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.