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Expression and phylogenetic analyses reveal paralogous lineages of putatively classical and non-classical MHC-I genes in three sparrow species (Passer)

  • Anna Drews
  • Maria Strandh
  • Lars Råberg
  • Helena Westerdahl
Publishing year: 2017-06-26
Language: English
Publication/Series: BMC Evolutionary Biology
Volume: 17
Issue: 1
Document type: Journal article
Publisher: BioMed Central

Abstract english

Background: The Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC) plays a central role in immunity and has been given considerable attention by evolutionary ecologists due to its associations with fitness-related traits. Songbirds have unusually high numbers of MHC class I (MHC-I) genes, but it is not known whether all are expressed and equally important for immune function. Classical MHC-I genes are highly expressed, polymorphic and present peptides to T-cells whereas non-classical MHC-I genes have lower expression, are more monomorphic and do not present peptides to T-cells. To get a better understanding of the highly duplicated MHC genes in songbirds, we studied gene expression in a phylogenetic framework in three species of sparrows (house sparrow, tree sparrow and Spanish sparrow), using high-throughput sequencing. We hypothesize that sparrows could have classical and non-classical genes, as previously indicated though never tested using gene expression. Results: The phylogenetic analyses reveal two distinct types of MHC-I alleles among the three sparrow species, one with high and one with low level of polymorphism, thus resembling classical and non-classical genes, respectively. All individuals had both types of alleles, but there was copy number variation both within and among the sparrow species. However, the number of highly polymorphic alleles that were expressed did not vary between species, suggesting that the structural genomic variation is counterbalanced by conserved gene expression. Overall, 50% of the MHC-I alleles were expressed in sparrows. Expression of the highly polymorphic alleles was very variable, whereas the alleles with low polymorphism had uniformly low expression. Interestingly, within an individual only one or two alleles from the polymorphic genes were highly expressed, indicating that only a single copy of these is highly expressed. Conclusions: Taken together, the phylogenetic reconstruction and the analyses of expression suggest that sparrows have both classical and non-classical MHC-I genes, and that the evolutionary origin of these genes predate the split of the three investigated sparrow species 7 million years ago. Because only the classical MHC-I genes are involved in antigen presentation, the function of different MHC-I genes should be considered in future ecological and evolutionary studies of MHC-I in sparrows and other songbirds.


  • Evolutionary Biology
  • Classical genes
  • gene expression
  • MHC class I
  • Non-classical genes
  • Passer
  • sparrows


  • ISSN: 1471-2148
Anna Drews
E-mail: anna [dot] drews [at] biol [dot] lu [dot] se

Doctoral student


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