The major histocompatibility complex (MHC) is a highly polymorphic and polygenic genomic region that plays a crucial role in immune-related diseases. Given the need for comparative studies on the variability of immunologically important genes among wild populations and species, we investigated the allelic variation of MHC class II DRB among three congeneric true lemur species: the red-fronted lemur (Eulemur rufifrons), red-bellied lemur (Eulemur rubriventer), and black lemur (Eulemur macaco). We noninvasively collected hair and faecal samples from these species across different regions in Madagascar. We assessed DRB exon 2 polymorphism with a newly developed primer set, amplifying nearly all non-synonymous codons of the antigen-binding sites. We defined 26 DRB alleles from 45 individuals (17 alleles from E. rufifrons (N = 18); 5 from E. rubriventer (N = 7); and 4 from E. macaco (N = 20). All detected alleles are novel and show high levels of nucleotide (26.8%) and non-synonymous codon polymorphism (39.4%). In these lemur species, we found neither evidence of a duplication of DRB genes nor a sharing of alleles among sympatric groups or allopatric populations of the same species. The non-sharing of alleles may be the result of a geographical separation over a long time span and/or different pathogen selection pressures. We found dN/dS rates > 1 in the functionally important antigen recognition sites, providing evidence for balancing selection. Especially for small and isolated populations, quantifying and monitoring DRB variation are recommended to establish successful conservation plans that mitigate the possible loss of immunogenetic diversity in lemurs.
Keywords: Balancing selection; Eulemur; Genetic diversity; Major histocompatibility complex; Polymorphism.