The role of infectious disease, inbreeding and mating preferences in maintaining MHC genetic diversity: an experimental test

Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 1994 Nov 29;346(1317):369-78. doi: 10.1098/rstb.1994.0154.


In house mice, and probably most mammals, major histocompatibility complex (MHC) gene products influence both immune recognition and individual odours in an allele-specific fashion. Although it is generally assumed that some form of pathogen-driven balancing selection is responsible for the unprecedented genetic diversity of MHC genes, the MHC-based mating preferences observed in house mice are sufficient to account for the genetic diversity of MHC genes found in this and other vertebrates. These MHC disassortative mating preferences are completely consistent with the conventional view that pathogen-driven MHC heterozygote advantage operates on MHC genes. This is because such matings preferentially produce MHC-heterozygours progeny, which could enjoy enhanced disease resistance. However, such matings could also function to avoid genome-wide inbreeding. To discriminate between these two hypotheses we measured the fitness consequences of both experimentally manipulated levels of inbreeding and MHC homozygosity and heterozygosity in semi-natural populations of wild-derived house mice. We were able to measure a fitness decline associated with inbreeding, but were unable to detect fitness declines associated with MHC homozygosity. These data suggest that inbreeding avoidance may be the most important function of MHC-based mating preferences and therefore the fundamental selective force diversifying MHC genes in species with such mating patterns. Although controversial, this conclusion is consistent with the majority of the data from the inbreeding and immunological literature.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Communicable Diseases / genetics
  • Communicable Diseases / immunology
  • Female
  • Genetic Variation
  • Humans
  • Inbreeding*
  • Major Histocompatibility Complex / genetics*
  • Major Histocompatibility Complex / immunology
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal