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Extreme MHC class i diversity in the sedge warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus); Selection patterns and allelic divergence suggest that different genes have different functions

  • Aleksandra Biedrzycka
  • Emily O'Connor
  • Alvaro Sebastian
  • Magdalena Migalska
  • Jacek Radwan
  • Tadeusz Zając
  • Wojciech Bielański
  • Wojciech Solarz
  • Adam Ćmiel
  • Helena Westerdahl
Publishing year: 2017-07-05
Language: English
Publication/Series: BMC Evolutionary Biology
Volume: 17
Issue: 1
Document type: Journal article
Publisher: BioMed Central

Abstract english

Background: Recent work suggests that gene duplications may play an important role in the evolution of immunity genes. Passerine birds, and in particular Sylvioidea warblers, have highly duplicated major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes, which are key in immunity, compared to other vertebrates. However, reasons for this high MHC gene copy number are yet unclear. High-throughput sequencing (HTS) allows MHC genotyping even in individuals with extremely duplicated genes. This HTS data can reveal evidence of selection, which may help to unravel the putative functions of different gene copies, i.e. neofunctionalization. We performed exhaustive genotyping of MHC class I in a Sylvioidea warbler, the sedge warbler, Acrocephalus schoenobaenus, using the Illumina MiSeq technique on individuals from a wild study population. Results: The MHC diversity in 863 genotyped individuals by far exceeds that of any other bird species described to date. A single individual could carry up to 65 different alleles, a large proportion of which are expressed (transcribed). The MHC alleles were of three different lengths differing in evidence of selection, diversity and divergence within our study population. Alleles without any deletions and alleles containing a 6 bp deletion showed characteristics of classical MHC genes, with evidence of multiple sites subject to positive selection and high sequence divergence. In contrast, alleles containing a 3 bp deletion had no sites subject to positive selection and had low divergence. Conclusions: Our results suggest that sedge warbler MHC alleles that either have no deletion, or contain a 6 bp deletion, encode classical antigen presenting MHC molecules. In contrast, MHC alleles containing a 3 bp deletion may encode molecules with a different function. This study demonstrates that highly duplicated MHC genes can be characterised with HTS and that selection patterns can be useful for revealing neofunctionalization. Importantly, our results highlight the need to consider the putative function of different MHC genes in future studies of MHC in relation to disease resistance and fitness.


  • Evolutionary Biology
  • Different functions of loci
  • Extreme diversity
  • MHC class I
  • Sedge warbler


  • Molecular Ecology and Evolution Lab
  • ISSN: 1471-2148
Helena Westerdahl
E-mail: helena [dot] westerdahl [at] biol [dot] lu [dot] se

Senior lecturer


+46 46 222 36 69



Research group

Molecular Ecology and Evolution Lab


Doctoral students and postdocs

Research fellows


Luz Garcia-Longoria

PhD students, main supervisor

Samantha Mellinger

PhD students, assistant supervisor

Gustaf Ekelund Ugge

Helena Westerdahl w house sparrow