Patterns of MHC-dependent sexual selection in a free-living population of sheep

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The MHC is one of the most polymorphic gene clusters in vertebrates and play an essential role in adaptive immunity. Apart from pathogen-mediated selection, sexual selection can also contribute to the maintenance of MHC diversity. MHC-dependent sexual selection could occur via several mechanisms but at present there is no consensus as to which of these mechanisms are involved and their importance. Previous studies have often suffered from limited genetic and behavioural data and small sample size, and were rarely able to examine all the mechanisms together, determine whether signatures of MHC-based non-random mating are independent of genomic effects or differentiate whether MHC-dependent sexual selection takes place at the pre- or post-copulatory stage. In this study, we use Monte Carlo simulation to investigate evidence for non-random MHC-dependent mating patterns by all three mechanisms in a free-living population of Soay sheep. Using 1710 sheep diplotyped at the MHC class IIa region and genome-wide SNPs, together with field observations of consorts, we found sexual selection against a particular haplotype in males at the pre-copulatory stage and sexual selection against female MHC heterozygosity during the rut. We also found MHC-dependent disassortative mating at the post-copulatory stage, along with strong evidence of inbreeding avoidance at both stages. However, results from generalized linear mixed models suggest that the pattern of MHC-dependent disassortative mating could be a by-product of inbreeding avoidance. Our results therefore suggest that while multiple apparent mechanisms of non-random mating with respect to the MHC may occur, some of them have alternative explanations.
Original languageEnglish
JournalMolecular Ecology
Early online date7 May 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 7 May 2021


  • sexual selection
  • major histocompatibility complex
  • inbreeding avoidance
  • soay sheep


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