Signatures of historical demography and pathogen richness on MHC class I genes

Nouar Qutob, Francois Balloux, Towfique Raj, Hua Liu, Sophie Marion de Procé, John Trowsdale, Andrea Manica

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The extreme polymorphism of MHC class I has been argued to be driven by balancing selection from pathogens, with the prediction that populations exposed to a wider variety of diseases should have higher diversity. We assembled a global database of allotype frequencies for MHC class I genes and investigated possible drivers of genetic diversity, measured in different ways. We first looked for a decline in diversity with distance from Africa (a consequence of drift during human expansions) and then investigated the link with pathogen richness once the effect of drift had been corrected for. Using heterozygosity, we recovered a clear decline in diversity from Africa and confirmed the positive relationship between genetic diversity and pathogen richness for all three classical MHC class I genes. However, when we considered a sequence-based measure of genetic diversity, the correlation with geographic distance from Africa vanished for HLA-C, and the correlations with pathogen richness for the three MHC class I genes were much weaker. HLA-C is known to consist of two functional classes of allotypes (classified with respect to the 80th residue), which interact with different KIR receptors. While this separation provided some improvement in the fit between genetic diversity and distance from Africa for one class, much clearer and consistent patterns were recovered when we used the 90th residue to separate HLA-C allotypes into two new classes. This suggests that this residue, which is also involved in the binding of KIR, might have had an important evolutionary role that has been overlooked.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)165-175
Number of pages11
Issue number3
Early online date23 Sep 2011
Publication statusPublished - 31 Mar 2012


  • MHC
  • MHC diversity
  • Dempography
  • Pathogen richness
  • Natural selection


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